For an illustrated version, see pages 21-22 in The Environmentor, vol. 3 no. 5.
Many Native American nations have "little tales" (that can be told outside of the proper winter storytelling season) about opossums' bald pink tails. Other animals have beautiful furry tails. What happened to opossums'? These tales usually focus on the consequences of vanity. Here's my favorite.
Long long ago, Possum had a beautiful bushy tail covered with the same silvery fur as his body. He was so proud of it! He kept it combed clean and fluffed it with his claws. When he walked in the woods or prairie, he made sure to wave it behind him so that it gleamed in the sunlight.
But there was another animal even more handsome than Possum: Raccoon. Possum thought, "It's that ringed tail of his. His body fur isn't so great--speckled black and tan. Looks dirty to me! But those wide black rings on his tail... If I had rings like that on my silvery tail, I would definitely be the most handsome animal!"
Possum thought of a plan to find out Raccoon's secret. He dropped by for a visit and pretended to be friendly. "Hi, friend Raccoon. Have you heard that the blackberries on the south hill are getting ripe? And the crayfish in the creek are delicious." After some small talk like this, Possum said, "You know, friend, I've been wondering: how do you raccoons put those black rings on your tails?"
Anyone knows that baby raccoons naturally grow those black rings as their fur grows out. So Raccoon thought Possum was joking. Raccoon had a sense of humor too! He replied, "Friend Possum, it's easy. What we do is, we twine some rope from the stringy bark of vines. Then we scrape sticky pine pitch from the trunks of pine trees, and rub the pitch into the rope. We tie the rope around our tails wherever we want to make a black ring. And then we set the pitch on fire! It hurts! but it's worth it to be handsome. When the fire goes out, we sit in the creek to cool off our tails. Then we carefully dry and fluff out the beautiful black rings."
Possum was so jealous of Raccoon that he believed every word. But he didn't want to let on that he planned to copy the raccoons' trick. "Oh, thanks, friend, I've always wondered." Then he cut the visit short and hurried out to try this trick himself.
He made the rope, rubbed in the pine pitch, tied the rope around his beautiful silver-furred tail and set it on fire. Ouch!! Yow!! It really did hurt! But he was sure the pain was worth it. When he didn't hear any more burning noises, he sat in the cool water of the creek. Ah, what relief! He waded onto dry land and eagerly reached around for his tail to admire the new black rings.
Oh no! ALL the fur had burnt off, leaving his tail bare, bald, and ugly! He was so shocked that he fell over in a faint. And when he woke up again, he slunk off into the bushes so that nobody would see his bald tail.
Ever since, they say, opossums avoid daylight and mostly come out at night. And when they are startled, they "sull" (faint) so that you'll think they are dead and leave them alone in their shame.
Cartoons to the contrary, North American opossums (Didelphis virginiana) do not hang by their prehensile tails! But these tails, and the opposable thumbs on their hind feet, can help them scurry up a tree if their toothy hisses don't scare off a predator. And if there's no tree handy, they can fall into a comatose state and give off a raunchy stink that might convince the hungry fox or coyote that this animal is already long-dead, nasty. You don't want to eat this.
And despite their rat-like tails and shapes, North American opossums are not rodents but marsupials: they carry their newborns in a pouch, like kangaroos! When the babies get big enough to crawl out of the pouch, mama opossum carries them on her back. They may twine their prehensile tails in her fur to help hold on, but that's not strong enough as they keep growing.
Their toothy hiss can be quite scary, but it's all bluff. They won't attack, and in fact they are more resistant to rabies than most other wild critters that live near humans. Another interesting resistance is to snake venom. They calmly hunt and dine on poisonous snakes! Their immune systems are being studied in hopes of discovering new anti-venins for human snakebite victims.
Furthermore, recent research tells us that opposums contribute in a further way to making the environment a little safer for hikers: they love to eat ticks! Scientists found that opposums are "like a magnet" to black-legged ticks, which carry Lyme disease. When researchers put the ticks on white-footed mice, chipmunks, squirrels, opossums, veerys and catbirds, they discovered that the opossums' meticulous cat-like grooming behavior licked off and swallowed 90% of the ticks while the other animals still crawled with them. They estimate that each opossum can consume up to 5000 ticks each season.
With their bald tails and rat-like faces, opossums aren't as cute as white-footed mice or as handsome as foxes (which eat a lot of mice, but host ticks in their own fur). However they sweep up a lot of ticks in their nightly wanderings, and then get rid of them. We can be grateful that they do their part in balancing our ecosystem.
Folktale: I have heard different versions told aloud. A Creek version can be found in Natalia Belting's Long-Tailed Bear and Other Indian Legends (Bobbs-Merrill 1961). The Cherokees however say that trickster Rabbit had Cricket groom Possum's tail for the big dance--but Cricket shaved off all the fur instead.