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The term “New Zealand possum” is sometimes used in the United States to differentiate between American opossums, family Didelphidae and Australian and New Zealand possums, in the family Phalangeroidea. The two marsupial families are related; New Zealand and Australian possums are known as possums because they resemble their American cousins. Both families raise their young in pouches for the first four to six months of their lives before introducing them to the outside world, and can be frightening to encounter in the middle of the night, as they will hiss ferociously to defend their territory.
Some observers find New Zealand possums very cute, with their large ears, bold eyes, and big bushy tails. However, possums also have sharp claws and teeth, and can hold their own in combat. They also carry a distinctive odor, thanks to musk glands located behind their ears, and can sometimes be smelled before they are seen. Possums like to nest in warm, insulated placed like barns and old logs, and will avoid coldness and damp if they possibly can.
While American opossums are generally linked with road kill, New Zealand possums are considered to be insidious pests, and numerous efforts have been undertaken by the government and conservation agencies to eradicate them. New Zealand possums are a non-native species, and because of their voracious appetites and high rate of reproduction, they do serious damage to native flora and fauna. Originally imported in 1837 from Australia to start up a fur industry, the possums quickly ran wild and began to wreak havoc; there are an estimated 70 million New Zealand possums munching their way through native plants today.
The possum is native to Australia, where it has found an evolutionary niche. Many Australian plants have developed offenses to protect from possums, including bitter leaves and sharp spines. In New Zealand, most plants are both tasty and defenseless, and possums will keep returning to the same tree until it ceases to produce edible leaves, eating it to death. Because the possum has no natural predators and abundant food sources, it has devastated New Zealand's native plants and animals, leaving conservationists with a serious problem. In addition to killing plants and trees, which undermines food sources and habitat for native species, possums also carry bovine tuberculosis, which can infect domestic livestock as well as deer.
In addition to trying to control the New Zealand possum with birth control and poison, they are also hunted for their soft, luxurious fur. Possum fur products are a major export of New Zealand, and several trade organizations promote New Zealand possum products overseas. If consumers must have garments with animal products in them, New Zealand possum fur is a good choice, because the animals are trapped rather than farmed, and by purchasing New Zealand possum fur, consumers are also helping to preserve New Zealand's natural environment and rich biological heritage.