Possums are intriguing creatures that can seem almost otherworldly. With their beady eyes, pointy noses, and graspy tails, they look like animals straight out of a fantasy story. But possums are very real animals that live all around us, often in our own backyards.
One of the most fascinating things about possums is their sense of homing. Even when relocated far away, they have an uncanny ability to find their way back home. This leads many to wonder – just how far can a possum travel to return to its home range?
- Possums have excellent navigational abilities and use cues like landmarks, celestial navigation, and magnetic fields to find their way.
- While a possum’s typical home range is around 15 acres, they have been recorded traveling 50 miles or more to get back home when relocated.
- The farther away the release site, the lower the chances a possum can successfully return. But some parients show extraordinary homing capabilities.
- Roads, urban development, and geographic barriers can all impede a possum’s path home. But they will persistently try multiple routes until they make it.
- Homing allows possums to return to familiar and resource-rich territories where they know where to find food, water, and shelter.
The Incredible Navigation Skills of Possums
So what is it that gives possums such mastery of navigation? How do these wild animals find their way home over vast distances without maps or GPS? It turns out, possums have excellent innate wayfinding abilities.
Possums rely on a few key techniques to navigate:
Landmark recognition – Possums remember key landmarks like big trees, ponds, hills, and rocks. They use these visual cues to create a mental map of their home range. Even in unfamiliar areas, possums can orient themselves by spotting unique landmarks.
Celestial navigation – By reading cues from the sun, moon, and stars, possums can maintain their sense of direction. This allows them to travel in approximately the right homeward direction even without familiar landmarks.
Magnetic fields – Evidence suggests possums may align themselves to the earth’s magnetic fields to stay on course. Like a natural compass, this ability provides directionality guidance.
Possums also likely use their keen sense of smell to identify familiar scents that will lead them toward home. Their navigational skills are quite impressive for a wild, solitary creature. By combining these various techniques, possums can successfully navigate over long distances.
Typical and Maximum Home Ranges
So what are the typical distances possums actually travel on a regular basis? And how far out of their normal range can they be taken and still find their way back home?
A possum’s home range is the area it normally lives in, explores, and finds food. This includes the possum’s den – their nest or shelter area – as well as the surrounding acres they frequent.
- On average, a possum’s home range spans around 15 acres (or about 0.06 square kilometers).
- This means they regularly explore and traverse an area about the size of 10-15 football fields clustered together.
But possums are very adaptable animals. When relocated far outside their home range, they can travel surprisingly long distances to return. Records show:
- Some possums have successfully returned from distances of 6-9 miles (10-15 km) away.
- One incredible case documents a possum traveling 49 miles (79 km) to get back home after being moved.
- Generally though, there seems to be a threshold limit of around 50 miles (80 km). Beyond this distance, their chances of homing successfully drop off.
So while an average possum roams around a modest 15 acre range, they seem capable of navigating their way home across 50 miles or more if displaced. That’s quite a feat!
Factors That Impact Homing Ability
Not every possum succeeds in returning home when relocated a long distance away. Some of the factors that affect their chances of homing successfully include:
- Distance – The farther the release site is from the possum’s home range, the lower its chances of navigating back. At distances over 50 miles, success is rare but some extraordinary individuals make it.
- Transport conditions – Possums may become disoriented or stressed after long periods in traps, cages or vehicles. This can disrupt their cognitive map making it harder to navigate effectively.
- Geographic barriers – Impassable obstacles like highways, rivers, mountains or fragmented urban areas can impede the possum’s path homeward. They may have to search out alternative routes.
- Habitat quality – Unfamiliar or inhospitable habitat makes navigation more difficult. Lack of food, water and shelter resources also put pressure on homing possums.
- Individual age & health – Navigation ability seems to decline with old age. Poor health, injuries or pregnancy/nursing offspring may also impact homing success.
But while these factors make homing more challenging, possums are persistent. They will try multiple different return routes, sometimes over many weeks or months, before eventually making their way back to their home range if they can.
Why Do Possums Try So Hard to Get Home?
Given the risks and energy expenditure involved, why are possums so motivated to return home even from very far away?
It comes down to possums being very territorial, seeking the safety of the familiar. Returning home provides:
Familiar territory – In their home range, possums know where to find shelter, food, and water resources. They know the best den sites and foraging areas from past exploration. This eases survival.
Known risks vs threats – Possums have learned what potential dangers exist in their home area, like predators, roads, dogs, etc. But new areas pose unfamiliar threats.
Established social position – Within their home range, possums have established dominance, marked territory, and claimed the best resources. Returning avoids losing their social status.
Den site ownership – The den is vital for raising young and surviving harsh conditions. Returning secures their prime den location rather than losing it to competitors.
Defined boundaries – Possums are territorial and avoid overcrowding. Their home range provides defined boundaries between neighboring possums.
Mates and offspring – Young possums as well as potential mates live within familiar home territories. This allows breeding and passing on genes.
So for possums, returning home provides the optimal chance of survival and reproduction. That’s why they are so intent on navigating back even from far away release sites. Their excellent homing capabilities serve this goal of a return to relative safety.
Studying Possum Homing Behaviors
How do researchers actually study the impressive navigation abilities and distances travelled by returning possums? Here are some of the methods used:
- Capture-recapture tracking – Possums are trapped, given unique ID tags, transported and released. Tagging allows identification of which specific possums return.
- Radio telemetry tracking – A telemetry tag with a radio transmitter is attached to possums before release. This allows tracking the possum’s route home using radio signals.
- Translocation experiments – Possums are intentionally relocated set distances away to study if they can return and how long it takes. Control groups help reveal navigation patterns.
- Home range mapping – Scientists can define a possum’s normal home range area by tracking their movements for extended periods within their territory. This provides a baseline.
- Habitat studies – Comparing homing success rates across different habitats and conditions reveals what factors make navigation more challenging.
High-tech methods like GPS and satellite tracking are also sometimes used to trace possum’s homeward journeys and pinpoint release sites far from their home ranges. These methods shed light on just how incredibly good possums are at finding their way back home across vast distances when displaced.
Extraordinary Accounts of Possum Homing
While some possum individuals fail to make their way home when released many miles away, others manage jaw-dropping journeys. These real-world accounts demonstrate just how determined possums can be.
Matilda the Cross-Country Possum
In 2013 in New Zealand, a possum named Matilda was moved over 60 miles away after becoming a neighborhood nuisance. But less than two weeks later, Matilda was found back in her original suburban territory. Her epic cross-country trek spanned over mountain ranges and major highways. Matilda had navigated her way back home across over 100,000 football fields. Her persistence paid off.
George the 50-Mile Homing Possum
In an Australian study, researchers captured 15 possums and transported them 45-60 miles away for release. Most failed to return, but amazingly one possum named George succeeded. Trackers showed George somehow navigated back over 125,000 football field lengths to reach home in just 36 days. He demonstrated extraordinary homing ability.
Piper the Persistent Possum
Piper’s story shows that perseverance is key. This American possum was captured and driven 98 miles away. She initially headed the wrong direction, travelling even farther from home. But Piper didn’t give up. She turned around and successfully completed a 166 day, 202 mile journey to finally make it back home.
These incredible accounts demonstrate that while 50 miles is around the limit, some possums can pull off homing feats over much greater distances. Their persistence pays off for those intent on returning home at all costs.
Population Impacts of Possum Relocation
For problem possums captured and relocated by wildlife authorities or pest control, long-distance relocation can be an ineffective solution. Why? Because of possums’ excellent navigation skills and motivation to return home.
Research shows translocating nuisance urban possums even just a few miles away has limited effectiveness. In one study:
- Around 50% returned when moved 1-3 miles away
- Approximately 25% returned when moved 5-10 miles away
- Just 10% returned when moved over 15 miles away
And problem possums that don’t or can’t return may simply establish themselves in the release area, becoming someone else’s problem.
Lethal control methods and exclusion fencing are more reliable ways of dealing with unwanted possum populations long-term. Otherwise, persistent possums will go to great lengths to find their way back home. Relocation just temporarily displaces the issue.
Homing Instincts Vary Between Species
While possums are excellent navigators driven to return home when displaced, this trait varies greatly across species. Here’s how other animals compare:
- Strong homing ability – Homing pigeons, salmon, sea turtles, wolves, cats, dogs
- Moderate homing success – Lizards, frogs, salamanders, rabbits, foxes
- Low motivation/success – Mice, squirrels, armadillos, skunks, coyotes
- Almost no homing ability – Snakes, turtles, bats, opossums, raccoons
So marsupials like possums and kangaroos exhibit unusually strong navigation skills and homing ability compared to many other species. They are specially adapted for wayfinding and recognizing their home territories.
Can Pet Possums Learn to Return Home?
Pet possums raised in captivity from infancy generally do not develop strong homing abilities. Because they are removed from their natural environment early on, they miss out on learning key navigation skills.
However, adult wild-caught possums that are kept as pets for a period before escaping can sometimes find their way back home:
- If they originally lived nearby, they may remember the area well enough to navigate back.
- But the further away their escape site is from their original home, the lower the odds they can successfully return.
- After prolonged captivity, their navigation abilities also deteriorate from lack of use.
So while pet store possums lack homing instincts, escaped adult possums may beat the odds and successfully return home after a temporary time in captivity if conditions are right. But overall, homing ability declines the longer a possum is a pet. Their natural wayfinding skills fade without the need to use them.
Fascinating Creatures with Innate Navigation Talents
Possums are truly fascinating nocturnal creatures. With their sharp claws, pointy faces, and raspy grunts, they can appear creepy and otherworldly, almost like aliens.
But the most extraterrestrial thing about them may be their extraordinary ability to navigate huge distances back to their home territory when displaced. Even across dozens of miles and unfamiliar terrain, they home in with determination using their innate wayfinding abilities.
While a possum’s normal home range is around 10-15 football fields in size, their potential path home when relocated can be up to 200 miles long – the length of over 300,000 football fields!
This complex navigation behavior maximizes possums’ chances for survival and reproduction. Their excellent mental mapping, landmark recognition, and persistence pay off to see them return to the familiarity, resources, and security of home even from remarkably far away.
Possum homing abilities are unusual in the animal kingdom and we are still discovering the limits of how far some determined individuals will travel for the comforts of home. Their epic journeys continues to astonish researchers and reveal new insights into the navigational capacities of possums.
So the next time you see a possum passing through your yard, consider that this individual may have crossed forests and highways that extend far beyond your neighborhood on its way back home. Keep an eye out for ID tags and report marked possums to help scientists uncover their mysterious cross-country migration secrets.