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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 8.djvu/161

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OPOSSUMS AND THEIR YOUNG.

OPOSSUMS AND THEIR YOUNG.
By Prof. W. S. BARNARD.

IN the "Perfect Description of Virginia," 1649, the opossum was noticed as "a beast that hath a bagge under her belly, into which she takes her young ones, if at any time affrighted, and carries them away." Lawson says: "She is the wonder of all animals. The female doubtless breeds her young at her teals, for I have seen them stick fast thereto, when they have been no bigger than a small raspberry, and seemingly inanimate. She has a pouch or false belly wherein she carries her young, after they are from those teats, till they can shift for themselves. ... If a cat has nine lives, this creature surely has nineteen; for if you break every bone in their skin, and mash their skull, leaving them for dead, you may come an hour after, and they will be gone quite away. ... Their fur is not esteemed nor used, save that the Indians spin it into girdles and garters." Aside from its curious appearance and habits, the opossum (Fig. 1) possesses an unusual interest from being our typical, and the only North American representative of that large order of peculiar mammals known as marsupials. Its mode of reproduction long remained a mystery, and even at

PSM V08 D161 Common virginia opossum.jpg
Fig. 1.—Common Virginia Opossum (Didelphys Vlrginiana)

this day almost nothing is known of its development, which, when thoroughly understood, must explain the origin of the pouch and other parts characterizing marsupials, and their relationship to allied groups. Having had some experience with these animals, and examined seven sets of young ones,[1] at important stages of development, I think it may be worth while to record some of the observations made.

With the general proportions of (but a longer nose than) the common rat, almost the size of a domestic cat, it presents a rather disagreeable appearance and odor. A dense coat of light-gray wool, with scattered long hairs interspersed, covers the body, while the short ears,

  1. The writer is indebted to Prof. Wilder, of Cornell University, and to Mr. Alexander Agassiz, Curator of the Museum of Comparative Zoölogy, at Cambridge, Massachusetts, for specimens kindly loaned him for examination.