Are you sweltering in the August heat? Let’s spare a thought this month for our brothers and sisters of the Southern Hemisphere, just coming out of their chilly winter months. Travel experts say that late August is actually a beautiful time to visit Australia: airfares are still low, the beaches of the north are warm, and even Sydney usually gets up into the mid- to high 60s most days. (If they used Fahrenheit there, which they don’t.) Jeopardy!’s Ken Jennings apparently has a trip to Australia on his mind this month: he’ll be here all August debunking mountains of marsupial misinformation for Woot!
Do Opossums Sleep Hanging from Their Tails?
Opossums are the only marsupials native to North America, but they are no less mysterious to us than their distant Australasian cousins. We’re not sure whether to say the first syllable in their name. We don’t know what it means when they “play possum.” And we are very, very wrong about their tails.
Cartoon opposums, of course, spend their days hanging from branches by their tails. They even sleep hanging upside-down, like bats, or like Michael Keaton in the first Batman. But this is all myth. Opossums do have an incredibly versatile prehensile tail, which they can use to brace themselves while climbing, or even to carry bedding materials like leaves and branches back to the den or nest.
But opossums can weigh up to fourteen pounds, and their thin tails can’t support anything close to that much weight. The myth may have started when tiny opossums were seen suspended from branches—juveniles are small enough to hang briefly as they’re figuring out how tree-climbing works. But even they never sleep upside-down. Their weird rat tails just aren’t strong enough.
Quick Quiz: What country music legend, once married to Tammy Wynette, was nicknamed “the Possum”?
Ken Jennings is the author of eleven books, most recently his Junior Genius Guides, Because I Said So!, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.