The opossum’s tale1
Only eight years after Columbus first set foot on American soil, an opossum entered the pages of recorded history. A Southern opossum from Brazil was the first marsupial to be brought to Europe. The explorer Vincente Pinzón presented her to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain in 1500, and showed them the opossum’s young in her pouch. The monarchs called the opossum an “incredible mother”.2
Whence from, and whither bound?
For several centuries following Columbus, various forms of opossums were the only marsupials that Europeans had seen. There certainly were enough of them; today, 66 species are recognized. Their current range extends from southeastern Canada in the north, through the United States, Mexico, and Central America, and into Argentina in the south.3
But while opossums were plentiful, they were an isolated group, an oddity among mammals. Scientists considered them “zoological curiosities”.4 That began to change when Europeans discovered the Australian marsupials in the 1770s.4 As the scientific community learned, the various kinds of opossums in the Americas were just the tip of the iceberg—the Australian marsupials occupied almost every conceivable ecological niche, from the feathertail glider to the marsupial mole.
Since the 18th century, the marsupials have constituted one of the classic problem cases for biogeography: how did the marsupials end up where they are? And why are they so oddly distributed (only in Australasia and the Americas)? But there are other complicating factors. Other kinds of marsupials used to live in the Americas (some resembling hyenas and sabre-toothed tigers5); now only the opossums remain. Additionally, marsupials were once more widely dispersed; fossil specimens have been found in Europe, Asia, and Africa.6
What’s interesting about the way that evolutionists deal with marsupials is how it relates to biblical post-flood dispersion models.
Images from iStockphoto
Figure 2: Opossums can raise several young, although they give birth to more than they can raise.
To start with, evolutionists do not seriously entertain the idea that similar marsupials evolved independently in separate places (this would be called “convergent evolution”). That would be just too improbable—although they’re willing to invoke “convergent evolution” in an attempt to account for incredible similarities between many marsupials and placental mammals. This includes the marsupial and placental moles, mice, cats and anteaters).7
So what do the evolutionists suggest? There is disagreement over whether the first marsupials originated in the Americas, Australasia or even East Asia. In any case, evolutionists believe, at the time, South America and Australia were connected via Antarctica (a land mass called “Gondwana”). European marsupials probably came from North America. When this land mass broke up, the marsupials on the separate continents went their own ways. For 60 million years, North and South America were separate, and southern marsupials diversified. These exotic marsupials went extinct when a land bridge reconnecting North and South America arose (a “mere” two to five million years ago).8
Despite its false premises (long-age uniformitarianism and Darwinism9), at least one good reason exists for creationists to find the evolutionary view interesting: evolutionists agree to the need for a large-scale migration of a few animal families from what is essentially a single origin point. This model might fit a biblical position, with two major modifications—a different timescale (a rapid post-Flood dispersion), and a different continent of origin (Asia Minor, from the Ark).
After the Flood, the marsupials left the Ark and dispersed around the world. They could have dispersed before many of the other mammalian varieties. They occupied various niches around the world, but were eventually driven off by competition in Europe, Africa, and Asia. Finally, they ended up establishing themselves in more distant (vis-à-vis the Middle East) regions. As ocean levels rose at the end of the Ice Age, land bridges were eliminated and the migrant marsupials were stuck where they were.10 There’s also evidence suggesting that human travellers introduced some of the marsupials to distant lands, which can explain conundrums of very similar marsupials in different parts of the world.11 (This is one explanatory tool evolutionists don’t have available!)
Adventure of life (starting at birth)
Images from iStockphoto
Figure 3: A Virginia opossum in an aggressive stance
The opossum and the entire marsupial order are not only an interesting case study in biogeography. They are also uniquely differentiated from other mammals in their method of raising young.12 Marsupial mothers give birth when the babies are still in early stages of development. The young then crawl into the mother’s pouch, where they continue to develop until they are able to cope in the outside world.
This unique form of birth and nurture was what captured the attention of the Spanish monarchs when they first examined the opossum. This was also noted in one of the earliest descriptions of the opossum, written in 1612 by Captain John Smith of the Virginia Colony: “An Opassom hath a head like a Swine, & a taile like a Rat, and is of the Bignes of a Cat. Under her belly shee hath a bagge, wherein shee lodgeth, carrieth, and sucketh her young”.13
Smith was talking about the North American “Virginia opossum”, the most familiar one to Americans, and one of the most widely dispersed, of all opossums. Upon close inspection, some remarkable design features are revealed in the child-raising process, as well as some reminders of the decay effects of the Fall of the natural order that followed mankind’s rebellion against God.
A Virginia opossum has the remarkably short gestation period of about 13 days, after which she gives birth to litters of from 16 to as many as 54 tiny, naked, blind babies. These grub-like little creatures then make the trip to the marsupium, the pouch, 8 cm (3 inches) away. There are tiny claws on the newborn’s forefeet (the hind feet are not yet developed) that enable it to drag itself forward into the pouch. Then, after arriving in the pouch, the claws soon fall off, reducing the risk of injuring fellow occupants of the pouch.14 Once inside, they attach themselves to a teat and grow and develop for about 75 days before they are weaned and venture out of the pouch.
Yet, along with this uniquely designed arrangement there is a reminder of death and suffering in this fallen world. Most opossums give birth to more young than there are teats to feed them—meaning that all those who don’t latch on die off. This phenomenon, “superfetation” or the overabundant production of young,15 is a reminder that genetic and biological processes—including birth—have mutated and degenerated since the original “very good” creation. This reminds us that the Creation groans, waiting for its restoration.16
- The idea for the title was drawn from Richard Dawkins’ The Ancestor’s Tale, a book I critiqued in Long tails, tall tales, Journal of Creation 22(1):37–40, 2008. Return to text.
- Macdonald, D., Encyclopedia of Mammals, Facts on File Publications, New York, USA, p. 830, 1985. Return to text.
- Nowak, R., Walker’s Mammals of the World, 6th ed., 1:17, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, USA, 1999. Return to text.
- Ref. 2, p. 824. Return to text.
- Forsyth, A., Mammals of the American North, Camden House, Camden East, Canada, p. 326, 1985. Return to text.
- McKenna, M., Review: marsupials right side up, Science 244(4908):1096–1097, 2 June 1989; Bown, T. and Simons, E., First record of marsupials (Metatheria: Polyprotodonta) from the Oligocene in Africa, Nature 308(5958):447–449, 29 March 1984; ref. 2, p. 824. Return to text.
- On convergent evolution generally, see: Batten, D., Are look-alikes related? Creation 19(2):39–41, 1997; <creation.com/lookalikes>. Return to text.
- Ref. 2, pp. 824, 825, 837; McKenna, ref. 6; Bown and Simons, ref. 6; Forsyth, ref. 5; Jablonski, D., Flessa, K. and Valentine, J., Biogeography and Paleobiology, Paleobiology 11(1):75–90, Winter 1985; p. 83. Return to text.
- Critiqued in many articles at Geology Questions and Answers <creation.com/geology> and Charles Darwin Questions and Answers <creation.com/Darwin>. Return to text.
- For more on creationist biogeography in general, and how this fits with the Flood and the Ice Age, see: Batten, D., ed., The Creation Answers Book, Creation Ministries International, Brisbane, Australia, chapter 16, 2006; Woodmorappe, J., Studies in Flood Geology, Institute for Creation Research, California, USA, pp. 7–11, 1999. Return to text.
- Woodmorappe, ref. 10. Return to text.
- Ref. 2, p. 826. Return to text.
- Quoted in Feldhamer, G., Thompson, B. and Chapman, J., Wild Mammals of North America, 2nd ed., The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, USA, p. 4, 2003 (original spellings). Return to text.
- Harrison, K. and G., America’s Favorite Backyard Wildlife, Simon and Schuster, New York, USA, p. 264, 1985. Return to text.
- Also found in a few Australian marsupial species. Ride, W., A Guide to the Native Mammals of Australia, Oxford University Press, London, UK, pp. 107–108, 1970. Return to text.
- See Romans 8:22–23; Grigg, R., The future—some issues for “long-age” Christians, Creation 25(4):50–51, 2003; <creation.com/future>. Return to text.