The opossum is many things, but did you know that it was a voracious tick eater?
A few years ago, scientists wanted to learn about the role different mammals and other animals play in the spread of the ticks and Lyme disease. One study of six species of animals (white footed mice, chipmunks, squirrels, opossums, veerys, and catbirds) tested the critters by exposing them to ticks.
When it was all said and done, one extremely common North American animal showed a remarkable skill: the opossum was amazingly good at removing them...and eating them! Talk about pest control measures!
There is only one species of opossum in the United States, and it's the only marsupial found here. That means they're more closely related to kangaroos and koalas from Australia than another common pest of North America, the raccoon. The one species is the Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana), which are often considered ugly pest animals with hairless ears and tails. Their opposable thumbs give a lot of people the creeps, too.
The opossum's ability to munch down on the annoying blood suckers took even researchers by surprise.
"I had no suspicion they'd be such efficient tick-killing animals," said Richard Ostfeld, of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, New York. "Don't hit opossums if they've been playing dead in the road."
Opossums are crazy, fastidious, grooming animals like cats, and when they find a tick, it's right down the hatch. Researchers found many digested ticks in the feces of cooperative opossums. Cheers to the guy who got that job!
Ostfeld said that one single opossum can kill and eat some 5,000 ticks in a single season. The actual spread of Lyme disease, or the rate at which it gets spread, can be diminished thanks to the hard work and voracious appetites of opossums.
While they can't eliminate entire tick populations and certainly get bitten by a few, opossums will destroy some 90 percent of all the ticks they encounter. Who knew eating ticks could be such a topic of discussion? Though they aren't the main food source, opossums kill and eat ticks without much thought. The opportunistic omnivores aren't exactly picky (they've also been known to eat cockroaches, slugs, snails, and the carrion of dead animals).
Knowing the effects of Lyme disease maybe the little mammals will get a better rap now in the animal world. So, the next time you see one "playing possum" in your yard or a bunch of young opossums clinging to their mother's back as the family flees your back porch light, just know they are doing a dirty, but useful job.