Thursday, February 27, 2020

Don’t Make Fun of Possums

Possums courtesy US Fish and WildlifeThe opposum is the only marsupial living in North America, and they’re one of the oddest-looking, slowest moving mammals around.

They’ve become sort of a folk hero in America, because of their penchant for annually devouring an average of 5,000 of the lyme bacteria carrying black legged ticks, which make the mistake of hitching a ride on the the possum’s low slung body.

The ticks can pick up the borellia burgdorferi lyme disease bacteria and then infect other mammals, such as you, your dog or your horse. Unfortunately for the ticks, and contrary to the possum’s disheveled appearance, they are great groomers, and may harvest up to 90 percent of the ticks who climb aboard.

Possums have been around for an astounding 70 million years, so their ancestors were there to commiserate with the dinosaurs of the Cretaceous who got zapped by the meteor which slammed into the Gulf of Mexico. At the same time possums live very short lives, typically two to three years, partly thanks to predators like dogs, cats and people. Their reproduction rate makes up for this, with a 12-day gestation period, and large litters of 5 to 13. They’re more intelligent than your dog or cat, and possibly as smart as your pig.

immature joeys by Steve HallThe young are tiny, barely a gram and a half, hairless and pink, and they’re called joeys. They spend about two months in their mother’s pouch, their mouths literally stuffed with a milk swollen nipple, afterwards growing large enough to get off the nipple, and graduating to clinging to her back as she moves about.

The young themselves are sexually mature at six months. Possums are prolific, often mating twice a year and delivering litters in February and July. Females have two vaginal tracts, which the males match with a bifurcated penis. As if that were not odd enough, possums have those tiny pink feet, each of which has opposable thumbs.

The opossum is a museum exhibit of extremely strange and disjointed features. It has 50 teeth, the most of any mammal, and it is resistant to rabies and most toxins (such as snake bites). Pity the poor rattler, copperhead or moccasin who bites a possum, only to have the possum turn the tables and eat the snake!

Possums have a low body temperature, which gives them a great immune system, and makes them resistant to viruses. Their tails are prehensile and can be used to drag leaves and sticks home to the nest, or to hang for brief periods by their tails from tree branches.

Possums may growl or hiss when confronted, but they appear to play dead when seriously stressed or threatened by predators. However, before you start nominating them for academy awards, the process seems to be involuntary. The possum faints, slouches to his side, with his mouth open, causing his tongue to loll outside the mouth, and his anus emits an odor so repugnant, it draws flies and dissuades would be diners, who depart in disgust. Even their heart rate and respiration slows down.

Possums are very beneficial, as they’re one of nature’s greatest sanitation engineers, eating practically everything from insect pests to moles and shrews, snails and slugs, worms and snakes, frogs, birds, fruits, nuts, our leftovers and carrion. They may resemble large rats, but they are not related, and do eat both rats and mice.

They also live anywhere, in tree cavities, under porches, in basements, attics and garages. They’re not much at digging, so they often take over abandoned burrows. They have great memories for where food is located or stored, and they’re very social with other possums, without being territorial about it.

If you live in an area infested with ticks, you can’t have a better neighbor than a possum. Climate change is encouraging some possums to brave the North Country, but these non-hibernators can have difficult winters. Our species of possum is the Virginia opposum.

Just like humans and other creatures, It is possible for some opossums to carry diseases, such as leptospirosis, tuberculosis, relapsing fever, tularemia, spotted fever, toxoplasmosis, coccidiosis, trichomoniasis, and Chagas disease caused by a parasite.

The opossum and a parasite, Sarcocystis neurona, have been implicated in Equine Protozoal Myeloencephalitis, a neurological disorder in horses, although current research suggests other hosts (such as raccoons and skunks) and parasites.

All in all, opossums probably carry far fewer zoonotic diseases than other critters, and probably make up for it in their heavy impact on disease carrying ticks.

Photos, from above: Possums courtesy US Fish and Wildlife and immature joeys by Steve Hall.

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Steve Hall

Steve and Wendy Hall run the Adirondack Wildlife Refuge and Rehab Center in Wilmington. They've been rehabbing and releasing wild animals for over 45 years, specialize in predators, keep wolves as the cornerstone of their educational program, and have lived in the Adirondacks for the past 20 years. The Adirondack Wildlife Refuge became a non-profit about 10 years ago.

Visit www.AdirondackWildlife.org to learn more.




14 Responses

  1. Renee says:

    Very interesting read. I had a possum on my front porch had been eating the cat food, I walked right past him, he just looked at me and that was that. He/she came back on several occasions for the food, I didn’t mind at all.

    • Suzanne says:

      I love possums. We have possums who come to our door to eat sunflower seeds dropped from the bird feeders, as well as the cat food and scraps we put out for them. My father liked to give them peanut butter, because he enjoyed watching then lick it off their mouths. At present we’ve got several — big, medium, and a little guy. To some, they may not be the most attractive critters (my nephews refer to them as “the ugly cats”) but they are gentle and harmless omnivores. Once, walking up across the field to my house, I met what I thought was one of the neighbourhood cats and stopped to talk to him–“Hi, Kitty!”. He sat and listened attentively. It took a while before I realised he wasn’t cat but our possum. Because they are slow, many get killed on the road. If only people would drive more carefully on country roads, and stop the slaughter of wild creatures.

      • Frank Smith says:

        I have come to adore these marsupials recently after interacting with them for thirty five years and doing research realize what an important benefit it is to have them close by. . .

  2. RC Streb says:

    Thanks for the info. It’s interesting to learn about all these little creatures that wander about, and how they fit into nature. In our Have-a-Heart trap we have caught and released animals I never knew frequented our suburban area: possum, skunk, raccoon, muskrat, and of course rabbit, squirrel, chipmunk and birds.

  3. Pat B says:

    It takes a brave soul to confront a skunk in a have-a-heart trap. 🙂

  4. Jack B says:

    I’ve caught 8 skunks so far over the years in have-a-heart traps, and I ain’t brave. You just have to be smarter then the skunk, that’s all.

    • Doug says:

      We have a pair of possums that frequent our back yard almost on a nightly schedule, we can easily tell them apart by their different fur coats…they come to consume left over bird seed, more recently apples that I leave out for them…they are friendly with several rabbits that also show up for ground food, often eating side by side with one another…rabbits munch on the top halves of the apples visible above the snow line where they fell, then the possums dig in, grab the remaining apple and head off…

  5. Frank Smith says:

    Thank you

  6. Charlie S says:

    ” they are gentle and harmless omnivores.”

    “If only people would drive more carefully on country roads, and stop the slaughter of wild creatures.”

    Yes,a very interesting read, and yes Suzanne I agree!

  7. Tabetha Smith says:

    I love them. I found a mother that was hit by a car at the end of my dirt road. All but one where deceased. I named him Blue. He became my life from that point on. Now he is huge and doing very well. I just love my boo boo

    • Sula says:

      So sweet! Glad you were able to rescue Blue, and hope he will have a long and happy life with you. I hate seeing poor animals killed on the road. Possums get the worst of it, because they’re so slow, but deer too, several leaping out from our corn field into oncoming vehicles. Once during my evening walk, I found a chipmunk, his cheeks still stuffed with the acorns he was carrying home. I picked him up and returned him to nature. We live on a country road which used to be quiet, but no more — people drive like maniacs. This is so unnecessary.

  8. Charlie S says:

    ” I just love my boo boo..”

    I had to laugh at this! I understand that softness Tabetha, that spirit that can only come with our pets who are like children.

  9. Susan Zimmermann says:

    Very informative as I have had a possum living under my back deck for 2 years. Thanks for the info.

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