Central American woolly opossum (Caluromys derbianus)

Central American woolly opossum feeding
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Central American woolly opossum fact file

Central American woolly opossum description

GenusCaluromys (1)

A tree-dwelling marsupial of Central and South America, the Central American woolly opossum (Caluromys derbianus) is the largest of the three woolly opossum species (2).

The Central American woolly opossum has a long, slender body, and the woolly coat, for which it is named, exhibits considerable variation, ranging from pale grey to bright reddish-brown (2). The limbs and feet are lighter and the underparts are buff-white to golden-tawny (2). The long tail is only furred for the upper half, with the lower half being naked. The Central American woolly opossum has a rather peculiar face, with a dark stripe extending from the top of the head down to the fleshy portion of the nose, and large, pale pink ears (2) (3).

The Central American woolly opossum is well adapted for clambering through the treetops of its rainforest habitat. The prominent, forward-directed eyes provide the opossum with binocular vision (2), which enables excellent hand-eye coordination and depth perception – important in navigating through the treetops (4). The long prehensile tail gives the opossum both balance and grip (2), and the claws on the forepaws and the opposable thumb allow the opossum to grasp trees and manipulate objects such as food items (4). With its acute vision and nimble fingers, this amazing opossum can even catch flying moths with its forepaws while hanging upside down from a branch by its tail (4).

Like all marsupials, the female Central American woolly opossum has a pouch on the stomach, in which the newly-born young develop. Along with the presence of a pouch on the female, the sexes can be easily told apart by the male’s obvious blue scrotum (4).  

Opossum De Derby.
Total length: 60 - 70 cm (2)
200 - 400 g (2)

Central American woolly opossum biology

At home amongst the canopies of rainforest trees, the Central American woolly opossum rarely ever ventures to the ground (4). It feeds upon both plant and animal matter, preferring fruits, but also consuming leaves, seeds, soft vegetables, insects, small vertebrates and possibly also carrion (1) (2).

The Central American woolly opossum's love for fruits of rainforest trees has led to an important relationship between the opossum and its favourite fruit trees, whereby the Central American woolly opossum acts as a seed-disperser. After ingesting the fruits of these trees, the seeds pass through its digestive tract unharmed and are dispersed when the opossum defecates in another location. The opossum’s  faeces also act as fertiliser for the seeds (7). This opossum also plays a vital role as a pollinator. It is known to pollinate an understory rainforest tree it frequently visits, known as Mabea occidentalis, and is likely to also pollinate other plants on whose flowers it feeds (8).

The Central American woolly opossum is a very shy creature, only emerging from its daytime shelter in the hollows of trees where it sleeps curled up, to forage under the cover of the dark. Due to its strictly nocturnal habits and enigmatic lifestyle, few observations of its behaviour have been made in the wild (2). In captivity, the Central American woolly opossum sets out on its nightly forage only after dark and returns to its nest before dawn. It is most active during the darkest period of the night (2).

While the Central American woolly opossum reportedly breeds during the dry season (from January to June) in most of Central America, in Nicaragua it is believed to breed year-round (2). The female Central American woolly opossum gives birth to a litter of one to six young, or ‘joeys’, and, as with all marsupials, the joeys are tiny and relatively undeveloped at birth. Yet remarkably, the joey is able to clamber and find its way unaided immediately after birth to one of its mother’s teats in her pouch where it will latch on and suckle. The joey, safe in the warmth and protection of its mother’s well-developed pouch, will suckle and complete development fuelled by the rich milk supply its mother provides (2). Both male and female Central American woolly opossums reach sexual maturity at an age of between seven to nine months (2). While the lifespan of the Central American woolly opossum in the wild is unknown, in captivity it can live up to six years of age (2).


Central American woolly opossum range

The Central American woolly opossum is native to South and Central American. Its range extends from southern Mexico south to western Columbia and northern Ecuador (2).


Central American woolly opossum habitat

Rainforest is the favoured habitat for this strictly arboreal animal (5). It has been recorded in both mature and disturbed rainforest (5), from sea level up to 2,600 metres (6). It may also be found in dry forest and even in gardens and plantations (5).


Central American woolly opossum status

The Central American woolly opossum is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

IUCN Red List species status – Least Concern


Central American woolly opossum threats

While the Central American woolly opossum is not currently threatened with extinction, as it has an extensive range and is common in a number of countries, population numbers in Mexico and Ecuador are declining (1). This is believed to be due to the loss of its forest habitat (1).

In the past, the Central American woolly opossum was trapped for its fur, but thankfully its fur is no longer in demand (1).


Central American woolly opossum conservation

The Central American woolly opossum occurs in several protected areas (1), but there are no known specific conservation measures in place for this elusive, nocturnal tree-dweller.

View information on this species at the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre.


This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:

This species information was authored as part of the Arkive and Universities Scheme.


An animal which lives or spends a large amount of time in trees.
The flesh of a dead animal.
A diverse group of mammals characterised by their reproduction, in which gestation is very short, and the female typically has a pouch (marsupium) in which the young are raised. When born, the tiny young crawls to the mother’s teats, where it attaches and stays for a variable amount of time, whilst it continues to develop. Marsupials also differ from placental mammals in their dentition.
Active at night.
Referring to a digit (thumb or toe) that can be turned so that its pad makes contact with the pad of each of the other digits on the same limb.
An animal that in the act of visiting a plant’s flowers transfers pollen grains from the stamen (male part of a flower) to the stigma (female part of a flower) of a flowering plant. This usually leads to fertilisation, the development of seeds and, eventually, a new plant.
Capable of grasping.
Animals with a backbone, including mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish.


  1. IUCN Red List (March, 2011)
  2. Bucher, J. and Hoffmann, R. (1980) Caluromys derbianus. Mammalian Species, 140: 1-4.
  3. Reid, F.A. (2009) A Field Guide to the Mammals of Central America and Southeast Mexico. Second Edition. Oxford University Press, New York.
  4. Rasmussen, D.T. (1990) Primate origins: lessons from a Neotropical marsupial. American Journal of Primatology, 22: 263-277.
  5. Emmons, L.H. and Feer, F. (1997) Neotropical Rainforest Mammals: A Field Guide. Second Edition. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  6. Alberico, M., Cadena, A., Hernández-Camacho, J. and Muñoz-Saba, Y. (2000) Mamíferos (Synapsida: Theria) de Colombia. Biota Colombiana, 1(1): 43-75.
  7. Vozzo, J.A. (2002) Tropical Tree Seed Manual. United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service, Washington, D.C. Available at:
  8. Steiner, K.E. (1981) Nectarivory and potential pollination by a Neotropical marsupial. Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden, 68(4): 505-513.

Image credit

Central American woolly opossum feeding  
Central American woolly opossum feeding

© P J DeVries / gettyimages.com

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