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Word of the Week: Prehensile
September 04, 2020 by Julia Miller-Black

Welcome to Word of the Week! Stay tuned for a new word each Friday to amp up your nature vocabulary!

Prehensile[ pri-HEN-sil, -sahyl ] (adjective): Describing an animal body part or organ that is adapted for seizing or grasping, especially by wrapping around.

Most often we hear the word prehensile in reference to primates, specifically how they use their tails for balance and extra grip while swinging through the forest canopy. But did you know that High Park has an animal with a prehensile tail of its own?

The Virginia opossum is found widely across the eastern United States and Canada. Contrary to popular belief, only young opossums can hang from their prehensile tails and only for short periods of time. Opossums mostly use their tails to help them balance and grab while climbing trees. Opossums can also use their talented tail as a helping “hand” to carry nest-lining materials to their den. Their naked paws and prehensile tails aren’t protected from cold winter weather, which is why opossums are not seen much farther north than Toronto.

Some people might find opossums scary looking, especially because of their 50 teeth (the most of any North American mammal), but opossums offer some incredible services. Don’t like ticks or snakes? Opossums do! A single opossum can eat up to 5000 ticks a day! They are immune to snake bikes and prey on both venomous and nonvenomous snakes (although there are no venomous snakes in High Park, they do live in other parts of Ontario). They eat cockroaches, mice, and rats as well.

If that hasn’t changed your mind on opossums, here are a few more awesome opossum facts! Besides their incredible prehensile tail and tick-eating abilities, opossums are North America’s only marsupial, meaning that their babies are nursed in the mother’s pouch. Mother opossums will sometimes piggyback their young while foraging. And they have a pretty interesting survival tactic. When threatened, opossums will play dead!

Nocturnal and fairly shy, opossums are difficult to see in High Park, but they are still an important part of the park’s ecosystem. If you do get a chance to see one in person, check out it’s prehensile tail (from a distance, of course) and watch it waddle along, most likely in search of ticks for dinner.

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