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Opossums: Popular meme, misunderstood marsupial

Opposum mother with babies on her back in a field of flowers
Candyce Herman/cherwoman730
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Adobe Stock
Opossums are all over the internet, likely because they're weird, scraggly animals. But an Idaho researcher says they have many endearing qualities.

The opossum has become a popular part of the internet, with memes dedicated to the funny-looking animal across the web. In the wild, an Idaho researcher says the scruffy marsupials deserve our respect.

Donna Holmes Parks PhD is an associate professor in the biology department at the University of Idaho, who has studied opossums since the 1970s. She said people probably shouldn't keep them as pets but they aren't dangerous.

"Since they live in so many people's backyards, I think it's nice for people not to be afraid of them," said Holmes Parks, "because they're really harmless, unless you go grabbing one, and they're not difficult wildlife to deal with. You can handle wild ones if you know how."

Holmes Parks said the sudden interest in opossums is fascinating, if also a bit confounding. But this could also be a moment for people to learn more about these creatures.

Opossums in the United States originate in the Southeast. While they typically don't like rocky areas, the marsupials can be found on the West Coast.

Cousin to creatures such as koalas and kangaroos, opossums are the only marsupials found in North America. The rest live in Australia.

Holmes Parks said they do well in suburban areas and will eat compost and dead animals, but aren't pests like rats.

"They're kind of recyclers of the world," said Holmes Parks, "and they're just good at taking advantage of whatever circumstances they find themselves in."

She described them as modern-day living fossils, most likely resembling the first mammals that walked the earth.

And that may be the extent of their purpose, so to speak, which Holmes Parks said is just fine.

"It's not like they're a keystone predator or something like a wolf or important like a moose," said Holmes Parks, "but they're just part of the richness of our environment, as far as I'm concerned."