Here’s a tip: The correct spelling of this word is opossum if you’re talking about the North American animal. If you’re talking about the Australian one, the word is possum.

When an Australian woman casually commented that she thought there might be a possum outside, her American friend responded, “Oh God, close your window.” The panicked reaction of her American friend puzzled her. Why was she so afraid of a cute, cuddly animal? Did she have an irrational phobia, like that big, strong man who was afraid of puppies? Finally, after much conversation, the two friends discovered that they were talking about “two very different animals.” Which one is the North American nocturnal animal that has a reputation for being mean and ugly? Is it the possum or the opossum?

In the Powhatan language, the North American animal was called “white beast.” In the early 1600s, Virginian colonists John Smith and William Strachey recorded the Native American word as “opassom” or “aposoum.” Later, this root word became our modern-day opossum.

“The possum family roosting in the garage scared Grandpa out of the house!”

“The opossum family roosting in the garage scared Grandpa out of the house!”

“We had to swerve to miss hitting the opossum.”

“There are little white monsters hanging from the tree—opossums!”

Do they really deserve to be the object of such fear? Let’s consider just four amazing facts.

Opossums have natural super-immunity to rabies. Because of their lower body temperature, they are eight times less likely to carry the disease than feral dogs are. And they have partial or total immunity to the venom of rattlesnakes, cottonmouths, and pit vipers.

Their prehensile tails allow opossums to grip branches and hang upside down. Combine this with their opposable thumbs and they become super climbers!

When confronted, in addition to urinating and defecating, opossums also hiss or growl. Saliva foams from their mouth as they bare their fifty sharp teeth. They secrete a smelly liquid from their glands. Not finding them particularly appetizing, some predators pass on opossums, especially when they play dead.

Opossums eat almost anything, including dead animals (which they usually find, rather than kill themselves), snails, bird’s eggs, plants, and garbage scraps. They even munch on the bones of roadkill, a calcium-rich feast for these scavengers.

Though they may look (and smell) menacing, experts agree that opossums are more likely to run or play dead than attack. The hissing and teeth-baring are usually just for show. However, none of these experts encourage you to call an opossum’s bluff. It’s usually best to give these animals a wide berth.

What about “possum”? Is it a spelling error or an alternate spelling? While people in the United States informally use the term possum to refer to opossums, there is a creature in Australia that officially holds the title. Australian possums are cute marsupials with fluffy, soft fur. Their diets mostly consist of plants and fruits, but they also sometimes eat bugs, bird’s eggs, and young hatchlings. Like American opossums, they have a few cool superpowers. They are immune to many plant toxins that would kill or sicken other animals. They are excellent climbers and distance jumpers of up to four meters. They also have a great sense of balance, which allows them to walk along power lines and balance on thin branches. Though their reputation is for being docile, they are not completely harmless. They will defend themselves if they feel trapped, and bacteria from their feces can cause skin ulcers in humans.

Americans often drop the O when they refer to opossums, but the term possum more correctly applies to their cuter Australian namesakes. The Australian possum is not the same animal; in fact, they are more closely related to kangaroos than to opossums. Neither one of them is very aggressive, but they will attack if they have no other option. How can you memorize the difference between the two animals? If you are in the United States, the O is for “ours.” And if you are in Australia, the O is for the “other!”