About the size of a large house cat, the Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana) is North America’s only marsupial, a mammal that carries and nurses its young in a pouch. One of Earth’s oldest surviving mammals, opossums (or simply possums), have been around for at least 65 million years, first appearing in North America about the time dinosaurs went extinct.
Most people don’t know it, but possums are the unsung heroes in the fight against Lyme Disease, eating over 95 percent of the ticks that land on them during their meanderings. Researchers estimate the average possum kills thousands of ticks every week. They also eat snails, slugs, and beetles, so they’re a welcome addition to the garden. They’ll also catch and eat unwelcome pests like mice, rats, fire ants, cockroaches, and even roadkill, making them an important part of Nature’s cleanup crew.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about possums is that they’re immune to snake venom, and actually kill and eat snakes, even venomous ones like rattlesnakes, copperheads, and cottonmouths. Peptide in the Virginia opossum’s blood has been found to be an effective and inexpensive antivenom against bites from the western diamondback rattlesnake in the U.S. and the Russell viper in India.
So the next time you see a possum, walk away. They are far more beneficial as scavengers than harmful for any damage they might do. Give Nature a break!
Photo courtesy Amazingfacts.com
My first up-close encounter with a possum was one evening years ago when I went into the feed room to get feed for our horses. I was used to seeing these hairy, grayish animals flattened on the road, their lives abruptly and unceremoniously ended while out on a nightly prowl, but I was not expecting to see this 18-inch-long freeloader wedged under the feed bin. A closer look prompted a couple of low hisses from the hapless creature, but it didn’t move—it was probably as surprised to see me as I was to see it! I had unknowingly put out the welcome mat for this visitor when I forgot to close the feed room door that morning. I got my feed and left the door open, hoping it would take its leave the same way.
Photo: Google images
The oft-maligned opossum is actually a fascinating creature that suffers from an image problem. Frequently perceived as a dim-witted, rat-like scavenger whose most impressive trick is mimicking roadkill, this creature has one spectacular virtue that just might transform the aversion of some for this odd, waddling mammal into at least tolerance.
Turns out possums are the unsung heroes in the fight against Lyme Disease. Large numbers of the ticks that carry the Lyme disease bacteria are found on mice, shrews, squirrels, and chipmunks, but not so with the opossum. Researchers at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, NY found out why. Several opossums were placed in cages and covered with ticks. The researchers waited for the biting ticks to jump off and counted how many escaped the mammal’s voracious appetite. The opossums ended up grooming off and eating over 95 percent of the ticks that landed on them. Experts estimate that a single possum can eat as many as 5,000 ticks in one season!
Typically, possums go about their business so quietly that you won’t even know they’re around. What should you do if you do happen to encounter a opossum? Absolutely nothing! Possums seldom stay in one place for more than a few nights, so fears of them “moving in” are unfounded. Just watch from a distance and enjoy one of nature’s most unusual and beneficial wildlife species.