Opossums are a North American marsupial. Possums are different marsupials found in Australia, NZ and New Guinea.
There is only a single marsupial species found in North America – the Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana).
In Australia, there are of course a number of marsupials including different species of possums, including the common bushtail possum (Trichosurus vulpecula). Aussie possums are quite different from American opossums. They’re more closely related to the kangaroo and other southern marsupials.
So that’s it then. It’s settled. Opossums are from the Americas, and Possums are from down under. Right? Not really. It’s never that easy, is it?
In North America, we seem to enjoy shortening words. The word possum (or ‘possum) has become an acceptable synonym for opossum (in addition to also describing its southern cousin).
possum noun \ ˈpä-səm \
2: any of various small to medium-sized, nocturnal, chiefly arboreal marsupial mammals … of Australia and New Guinea…
Where do the names come from?
The opossum was named by Jamestown colonists in the early 17th century. It is derived from the local Algonquin word describing the animal.
A botanist visiting Australia in the 18th century named the possum based on its resemblance to the opossum.
In the late 1700s, Sir Joseph Banks, a naturalist who accompanied Captain James Cook on his first great voyage, likened a furry creature he saw in Australia to “an animal of the Opossum tribe.” The term for the ringtail marsupial that he spotted was shortened to possum.
Do possums and opossums “play possum”?
It’s well known that possums will play dead if threatened, but which animal does that? In fact, it’s only the North American opossum that exhibits this behaviour. Australian possums do not.