Possums eat 5,000 ticks per year
(Reprinted from above link)
Whenever people say they don’t like opossums or they want to get rid of them, what they’re unknowingly saying is that they’d rather have more ticks around.
An opossum’s abundant consumption of ticks is a well-documented, but seldom-mentioned benefit this unique mammal provides to humans. It’s one of several characteristics of an animal that is more interesting than many humans realize.
Of all the feelings opossums evoke in humans, fascination usually isn’t one of them. Most people find an opossum’s sneering facial expression disgusting, its lumbering gait clumsy and its overall appearance repulsive. However, the next time you want to hate on a ’possum, remember the number 5,000. That’s the number of ticks it’s estimated one opossum consumes over the course of a year.
Are you suddenly feeling a little more love for that animal you despised a moment ago?
To say opossums “eat” ticks is technically correct, but “consume” is probably a more accurate word because ticks don’t seem to be a targeted food item. They’re just consumed in the process of an opossum’s personal hygiene regimen. Like any wild mammal, an opossum picks up an abundance of ticks over the course of spring and summer. Because opossums are very meticulous groomers, most ticks that attach themselves to an opossum are soon picked off and swallowed. That’s the end of that tick and, more importantly, it’s the end of any problems that tick — and the offspring it would have produced — may have caused for humans, dogs or any other hosts down the road.
Opossums won’t be picking ticks out of their fur at this time of year, but this is an important time for them. From late February through March is when females have the first of two annual litters (their second litter is born late May to early June). Newborn opossums have well-formed claws on their front legs that they use to climb up their mother’s body into a pouch called a marsupium. Female opossums normally have 13 teats but often have litters of more than 13. To compound this problem, some teats are smaller than others and don’t get used. As a result, the average number of young an opossum ends up carrying in her pouch is nine. When young become too large for their mother’s pouch, they frequently ride on her back for approximately three weeks.
Opossums are one of the world’s oldest mammals. Fossil records show they’ve been around for approximately 70 million years and date back to the time when dinosaurs were still common.
As stated above, opossums have a pouch called a marsupium, which means they are marsupials. They are North America’s only marsupials and, thus, are the New World’s closest relatives to kangaroos and koalas.
Opossums are also the only North American mammals with prehensile tails. To add yet another interesting trait, they are immune to the venom of copperheads, rattlesnakes, cottonmouths and a number of other venomous snakes.
Perhaps the opossum’s most interesting trait is its habit of “playing possum.” This self-defense mechanism involves a cornered opossum feigning death by rolling on its side, becoming limp and shutting its eyes. Its heart rate also slows. It’s not certain if this is an intentional response or an uncontrolled reaction — a wildlife version of fainting. Either way, it recovers quickly and is able to take the first opportunity to escape.
Opossums are omnivores, so ticks aren’t the only items they swallow. Insects and carrion are common food items, but they also eat small mammals, worms, snails, slugs, bird eggs, fruits and some grains.
Opossums are classified as game animals in Missouri and are included in the winter furbearer season (see the Wildlife Code of Missouri for hunting and trapping details). Opossum fur is used chiefly to trim inexpensive cloth coats. Opossums can also be hunted in season for table fare, although few people do this anymore.
More information about opossums can be found at mdc.mo.gov.
Francis Skalicky is the media specialist for the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Southwest Region. For information about conservation issues, call 417-895-6880.