This week's Animal Oddity is Heidi, the famous Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana) who lives at the Leipzig Zoo in Germany. Heidi made her first media appearance last summer when she was featured in a local newscast and since then her fame has only grown. Today, her Facebook page currently has more fans than German Chancellor Angela Merkel's and she's got dozens of YouTube videos and news stories dedicated to her.
Part of what makes Heidi so appealing is her crossed eyes. They give her a cute, cartoonish appearance. That works in her favor, because sadly, many people think of opossums as gross-looking giant rats (even though they are marsupials, not rodents) and would rather get rid of them than celebrate them.
As a naturalist with the National Wildlife Federation and blogger for Animal Planet, I've seen crossed-eyed opossums before. Read on to see what I think is the reason for Heidi's fame-inducing crossed eyes.
While some reports are attributing Heidi's eyes to a genetic condition, I suspect something else is going on. This condition is actually not that uncommon in captive opossums and can be caused when fat deposits build up around the eyes. It's thought that because opossums that live in zoos or nature centers don't have to work for their food, and get more of it, they are more likely to develop these fat deposits than their wild kin.
Below are a few of the many online videos dedicated to Heidi. Some of them are really creative! In the first one, note how fat Heidi's tail is as well, compared to the tail of a wild opossum. These animals store fat in their tails too, and the size of Heidi's is a sure sign that she's more than well-fed.