What is the difference between a possum and an opossum?

Some believe that possums and opossums are both the same animal. This is quite incorrect, however.

The "possum" of North America is just a shorter name for an opossum, but true possums are different from opossums, and not related at all, except by virtue of both animals being marsupials.

  • Possums belong to the order Diprotodontia and the suborder Phalangeriformes, while opossums belong to the order Didelphimorphia and the family Didelphidae.
  • Opossums are found only in North America, although there is a "water possum", also known as the yapok, which is found in central and South America.
  • True possums are found in New Guinea, Australia (including Tasmania), Sulawesi (Indonesia) and a few other small islands in the Pacific region. Although not native to New Zealand, the brush-tailed possum was introduced into that country over a century ago and has subsequently become a pest.
  • The North American Opossum has a bare tail. All varieties of Australian possums have furry tails.
  • There are many varieties of possums in Australia (and New Guinea), including Gliders and the Cuscus. There are more limited species of the opossum.
  • Captain Cook's botanist, Sir Joseph Banks, named the Australian animal "Possum", referring to it as "an animal of the Opossum tribe" because he believed there was a physical resemblance.
  • Opossums were named by Captain John Smith in 1612. He took the name from an Algonquian (North American Indian) word.