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A battle of wits between possums and dogs?

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D.S. Pledger
February 16, 2014

A few weeks ago I wrote about a possum that was hanging around my backyard.

Its presence in a place frequented by dogs seemed to underline an assumption I've always had—that possums suffer from a major deficit in the brains department. When accosted by Yellowtail, the Labrador, the young possum did its “curl up in a ball” thing, but when the danger passed, it simply got up and started snuffling around for apples again.

Even after being picked up by the tail and pitched into a snowbank on the other side of the fence it was back the next day, obviously not having learned its lesson that the yard is a dangerous place. Imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered that at least one person thinks that they're intelligent.

“Opossums 'seem dumb,'” writer Lyanda Lynn Haupt tells us in a recent issue of Discover Magazine, “but are moderately to highly intelligent, ranking above domestic dogs on task tests. They are believed to be about as intelligent as pigs.”

Have any of you readers out there ever seen a possum act in a way that could be called “highly intelligent?” I certainly know that I haven't. They wander about during all kinds of weather, seemingly oblivious to threats such as dogs and cars, and to the fact that their ears and tails are freezing off (this is why those appendages on adult possums have a tattered look to them).

So when I read that they were supposedly smart, my interest was piqued. I went online and did a Google search, keying in both “opossum intelligence” and “animal intelligence” and read about a dozen related articles.

As I suspected, in spite of Ms. Haupt's assessment, most researchers don't consider this marsupial to have much in the way of mental prowess. To be fair, a few of the sites did maintain the animals weren't stupid, but predicated their views with phrases such as “they are said to be” (who says?) or “they are ranked” (again, by what study and by whom?).

The possum positives also came from sites that champion them (yes, I can report that there is a National Opossum Society. I also found a site called “Planet Possum” which even features possum poetry and prose).

The negative assessments, however, came from more scientific sites such as Scienceviews.com.

“The spark of life barely flickers in his brain,” its article begins. “His ancestors walked in the shadow of dinosaurs and mingled with horses that grew only 12 inches tall. Slow, clumsy and low on the intelligence scale, the opossum is an ancient mammal and seems destined to follow us to the stars.”

One fact that showed up often on many sites is that opossums have small, somewhat primitive brains. Accordingly, they are unlikely to have many of the sophisticated cognitive abilities of more evolved species, especially those that hunt cooperatively, like wolves, coyotes and dogs.

“Dogs,” as another writer points out, “have very sophisticated social skills, which they may have evolved through domestication. Dogs recognize the importance of human gestures, and they also know that when a person closes his or her eyes, the person cannot sense what the dog is doing. There are dogs that respond to hundreds of words, and dogs can think abstractly.

“If it were suddenly discovered that opossums could best dogs at these skills,” the article concludes, “it would shatter almost everything we know about cognition in vertebrates. It would also fundamentally shift how we understand brain physiology, for an opossum's brain is far more primitive and less complex than that of a dog.”

Are possums as smart as dogs? From most of the evidence I found on the Internet, the answer would indicate definitely not. My personal answer would be “are you kidding?”

D.S. Pledger is an outdoors columnist for The Gazette. Email him at maus16@centurytel.net.



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