Creation: Opossums help combat Lyme disease

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North American opossumThe North American opossum with winter coat (Wikipedia)

The opossum (Didelphimorphia) is the largest order of marsupials in the Western Hemisphere, including 103 or more species. Commonly called possums, the word “opossum” is borrowed from the Virginia Algonquian (Powhatan) language and means “white dog” or “white animal”.
Most opossums have a plantigrade stance (feet flat on the ground) and the hind feet have an opposable digit with no claw. Like some monkeys, opossums have prehensile tails.
Female opossums have a pouch, called a marsupium. While the females do have a placenta, it is short-lived, simple in structure, and not fully functional. The young are therefore born at a very early stage and must find their way into the marsupium to hold on to and nurse from a teat.
Female opossums often give birth to very large numbers of young who are weaned between 70 and 125 days, when they detach from the teat and leave the pouch. The opossum lifespan is unusually short for a mammal of its size, usually only two to four years. Senescence is rapid.
When threatened or harmed, opossums will “play possum,” mimicking the appearance and smell of a sick or dead animal. This physiological response is involuntary, rather than a conscious act. The opossum’s lips are drawn back, the teeth are bared, saliva foams around the mouth, the eyes close or half-close, and a foul-smelling fluid is secreted from the anal glands. The stiff, curled opossum can be prodded, turned over, and even carried away without reaction, but the animal will typically regain consciousness after a period of between 40 minutes and 4 hours, a process that begins with slight twitching of the ears. In the case of baby opossums, however, the brain does not always react this way at the appropriate moment, and therefore they often fail to “play dead” when threatened.

A baby opossum

A baby opossum

These ungainly-looking animals with sharp teeth are actually quite remarkable.
Opossums have a remarkably robust immune system, and show partial or total immunity to the venom of rattlesnakes, cottonmouths, and other pit vipers. Opossums are about eight times less likely to carry rabies than wild dogs; only 1 in 800 opossums is infected with rabies.
Opossums are also mortal enemies of the tick that infects humans with the terrible Lyme disease.
John Ferro writes for the Poughkeepsie Journal, March 16, 2015, that opossums dine on ticks “like a vacuum dines on dust”:

The tiny adolescent ticks that carry Lyme disease bacteria are most active during the late spring months, typically May and even as early as April during warmer years.
But whereas these ticks can be found in large numbers on mice, shrews and chipmunks, they are eaten in large numbers by opossum.
Research led by scientists based at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook placed different species into cages, covered them with ticks and waited for the biting arachnids to jump off.
The scientists then counted how many survived.
Opossums can eat or remove as much as 96 percent of the ticks that land on them.
Research also suggests the immune system of opossums is fairly effective at fighting off the disease. […]
Opossums are your friend and mine in the fight against Lyme.

Opossums are usually solitary and nomadic, staying in one area as long as food and water are easily available. As nocturnal animals, they favor dark, secure areas below ground or above. 
The Virginia opossum was once widely hunted and consumed in the United States.
So the next time you see an opossum, be thankful that it’s around, because where there’s opossum, ticks will be scarce!

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0 responses to “Creation: Opossums help combat Lyme disease

  1. We see them around here all the time, never knew they munched on ticks, which we detest. Thanks for this interesting tidbit.

  2. Kevin J Lankford

    Hey, they don’t taste to bad themselves. Just a little greasy, like pork.

  3. Early this morning while driving in Brooklyn near Newtown Creek, I noticed an opossum crossing a street. New York City has had a raccoon infestation for years, but last night was the first opossum I sited. (It would be great if they could drive out the mice and rats!)

  4. Thanks Dr. Eowyn,
    God’s wonderful plans are everywhere. If we have eyes to se them, our hearts are filled with wonder.

  5. This article has more or less answered a question that had been in the back of my mind (a dark and deslolate place, I assure you) for awhile.
    In the past (like, in New Jersey) we always had a tick problem with our dog. Where we live now, with two dogs, we have rarely, if ever, had that problem. Possums seem to be common here (I’ve trapped a couple in recent years, releasing them at the far end of our property). There must be a connection. (none of ‘our’ possums ever appear to be underfed, either).
    It would seem that possums and bats are very misunderstood, and beneficial, creatures.

  6. Thank you Dr. Eowyn for this wonderful post! I love possums as I see them all of the time. I once saw a very tired mommy possum with a bunch of little ones she was carrying in the Southern heat. I fed her and thereafter fed them a very long time. I stopped for a little while but I will begin again.
    The fact that these sweet little creatures eliminate ticks is another way that reflects God has a plan and purpose for everything. The organization of creation is absolutely remarkable. It should never cease to amaze us.

  7. I used to have a tame one that came to the back door to eat every evening. It is good that they combat Lyme Disease. Have you heard that people who contract Lyme Disease have a greater chance of developing Alzheimer’s?

  8. If you have to let your dog out at night, it’s always a good idea to turn on an outside light and wait a few minutes to give opossums a chance to retreat.

  9. Grouse, pheasants, and other game birds also eat huge numbers of ticks.

  10. I always know opossums were great! I’ve had two as pets, Smacky and Joey.
    Sweet critters.

    • Always knew, that is.
      They eat bugs, grubs and LOVE earthworms. Yum! Smacky would eat the earthworms from the mulch pile like spaghetti. But there’s nothing cuter then a baby opossum eating a grape.
      Our opossums also never had a problem with fleas and had a bath every week.
      It’s too bad they get such a bad rap. They’re very nearsighted and react with the teeth and horrible noises to any movement. Being near the bottom of the food chain and all, everything could be out to get them. This tactic has worked for millions of years.

  11. KInda cute and hey who knew about the Lyme disease. All over down here.
    Know what we call our Armadillo’s? Road Kill.
    They are the stupidest animals alive.
    Well I guess it’s not their fault they like to run in front of cars. They are about blind. There is not a day goes by that I don’t pass 1-2 in road.
    Now for nature. Come back in one hr and it is gone. 50 Vultures will be licking their lips . Amazing.


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