Possum vs Opossum – What’s the Difference?

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Want to start a late-night debate? Bring up the topic of possum vs opossum. While you can have two people be adamant that their pronunciation is correct, there are a few differences to note. We’ll break down just what the difference is between a possum and an opossum and when to use each word.

Possum vs Opossum: When talking about the common Virginia marsupial, you can actually use either the word possum or opossum. They are interchangeable based on current English rules. However, there are in fact two different types of animals so if you want to get technical, there are fundamental differences between the two animals.

First, possums are found in Australia, New Zealand, and China while opossums are only found in North and South America. Possums are smaller in size and have rounded bodies that are brown or grey in color while opossums have very pointy faces that are white in color, in contrast to their grey bodies.

The common expression to “play dead” refers to opossums. They will stop, lie down, and appear dead, sometimes for hours, if they feel threatened. In contrast, possums will simply run and hide if something scares them.

Finally, possums and opossums are both marsupials. They are nocturnal animals and after they give birth, they keep their babies in pouches for nourishment, protection, and growth.

Possums are not meant to be pets. If you do come across either a possum or an opossum, it’s best to give the animal plenty of space.

Origin and History of Possum

Found in Australia, New Zealand, and China, possums are a type of marsupial. This means once a baby is born, it is carried inside its mother’s pouch until development is complete.

Possums have rounded bodies and common varieties have grey bodies and black ears. Their small, black beady eyes are particularly striking against the contrast of the fur on their faces.

You can also find possums with brown stripes down their backs, with grey coloring, or black and white coloring.

You can find possum dens among forest floors and rock formations. They will build their own dens or find opportunistic areas wherever they can.

As for their diet, possums gravitate towards fruits and vegetables although there are omnivore possums in addition to herbivores. You generally won’t see possums during the day as they are nocturnal, although you may see them at dawn or dusk.

Origin and History of Opossum

Another marsupial, opossums are native to North America. While there are many species of possums in North and South America, the only species you will find in either Canada or the United States is the Virginia opossum.

Virginia possums are grey in color with a long, pointy snout. They have sharp claws that allow them to easily climb trees and forage.

Most North American opossums will have white faces and dark ears. They also have long tails that are hairless.

You may see opossums with their babies on their back, which is quite adorable. Opossums can have up to 13 babies and placing them on a mother’s back is a convenient way to move around.

Opossums adapt well to their surroundings and are omnivores, meaning they will eat what is available. This serves them particularly well in urban settings. Unfortunately, if there are garbage cans around, they may eat their contents.

Like possums, opossums are marsupials and they carry their young in pouches after they are born. They are also nocturnal so you don’t often see them during the day.

One of the most well-known facts about opossums is that they pretend to be dead when threatened. Many times people stop to check on an opossum, believing it to be injured. As a result, the opossum surprises people when it leaps back to life and bares its teeth.

Difference Between Possum and Opossum

  • Possums live in Australia, New Zealand, and China, while opossums live in North America and South America.
  • Possums are grey, black, or brown in color while opossums have white faces and grey bodies.
  • Exepct to see possums with bushy tales while opossums have hairless tails.
  • Possums are herbivores and omnivores, depending on the species, while opossums are omnivores and better suited for scavenging.
  • Possums are smaller, and some varieties can be as small as your hand, while opossums are larger, about the size of a cat.
  • There are many species of possums while there is only one common species of opossum.
  • Possums don’t “play dead” while opossums are quite known for this behavior.
  • Possums are rounder in appearance while opossums have very long and pointy faces.

Are opossums and possums related?

Opossums and possums are both marsupial animals, so there is some relation between the two. However, they are different species and you should consider them as separate animals.

Possums in Australia are actually more closely related to other common marsupials, including kangaroos.

Possums are part of the Phalangeriformes grouping of animals that includes possums, cuscus, and gliders. Opossums are part of the Didelphimorphia order of marsupials.

If you’re still not sure why the two names are so similar, you can go back to English explorer Sir Joseph Banks for an explanation. Being familiar with North American opossums, when he explored Australia and discovered similar animals, he simply named them possums.

How to pronounce Opossum?

While many people really pronounce the “o” in opossum, it is more correct to make the “o” more subtle. In pronunciation terms, it has a symbol of an upside-down e, which is a “schwa” sound.

A schwa is when there is a vowel sound but it is said so quietly that it can be hard for another person hearing it to distinguish what the sound actually is. Examples include the “a” in a “balloon” and the second “o” in “bottom”.


We’ll forgive you if you live in North America but prefer to call your marsupials possums. While possums and opossums are in fact different animals, when we refer to the common Virginia opossum, you can use either spelling.

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