Thursday, October 1, 2015

Love Your Possum

Opossum beauty - Wikimedia
“The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant, ‘What good is it?’ If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not.”
Dave Shanholtzer sent this Aldo Leopold quote from Field and Stream.  A study by researchers at the Cary Institute helps answer the "What good is it?" question above.  It suggests that a large population of lowly opossums may reduce the risk of tick borne disease.

First, let us consider the underrated possum.  It is so primitive that it arose at the time of the dinosaur extinction.  Most sources point out that it has a very small brain, primitive habits and a relies on escaping danger by playing dead, frequently ending up as the prey of a predator such as a coyote, or a smorgasbord for vultures served up by an SUV.  Its skinny hairless tail, pink nose, gaping teeth and marsupial pouch makes it look like a mammal created by a committee that could never reach an agreement on design.  Vicente Yáñez Pinzón was Columbus' navigator on the  Niña when he first described one.
"Between these Trees he saw a strange Monster, the foremost part resembling a Fox, the hinder a Monkey, the feet were like a Mans, with Ears like an Owl; under whose Belly hung a great Bag, in which it carry'd the Young, which they drop not, nor forsake till they can feed themselves"*
Virginian Opossum - John James Audubon
For several centuries Europeans were fascinated by the strange creature which then illustrated the first maps, in the company of flying fish and unicorns.  It was first named "opossum" by Captain John Smith.  With more than 500 years of curiosity, you might think we would know everything about the possum by now.

New research suggests that we should appreciate the possum for its appetite for ticks.  Dragging along the ground, they get more than their share of ticks, the ultimate opportunists of the arachnid world.  Opossums are clean, grooming more than a domestic cat.  Living in the wild, they constantly accumulate ticks which they then eat, essentially collecting their dinner on their hide.  The research suggests that a possum can consume 5,000 ticks a year!

We are fortunate in Missouri that we don't have the large population of  blacklegged deer ticks that transmit Lyme disease found commonly in the northeastern US.  On the other hand we certainly have our share of Rocky Mountain spotted fever, erlichiosis and tularemia transmitted by our common lone star ticks and dog ticks.

The next time you see a possum chewing road kill on the highway, brake or swerve and give it a friendly wave.   A tick it eats may have been headed toward you.

*The Ashgate Research Companion to Monsters 


  1. Now, if they would just eat chiggers!

  2. Opossums always look clean to me. Now I know why.