Tick vacuums, possums combat Lime disease

July 5, 2018

With the huge rise in deer tick populations and the spread of Lyme disease, many friends of wildlife are welcoming opossums into their yards.

Why? Scientists have learned that opossums act like little vacuum cleaners when it comes to ticks — with a single opossum hoovering up and killing as many as 4,000 ticks per week.

Opossums are extraordinarily good groomers it turns out — we never would have thought that ahead of time — but they kill the vast majority — more than 95 percent of the ticks that try to feed on them. So, hoovering up ticks right and left, they are really protecting our health, said Rick Ostfeld, senior scientist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies

More Benefits

Opossums, often just called possums, are a benefit to ecosystems and a healthy environment beyond eradicating ticks. They will catch and eat cockroaches, rats and mice — in addition to consuming dead animals of all types (also known as carrion). Gardeners appreciate opossums’ appetite for snails and slugs and for cleaning up over-ripe fruit and berries.

Opossums also are resistant to snake venom and actually prey on snakes, including venomous species such as copperheads and rattlesnakes. Having possums around can minimize chances of venomous species close to your home.

Evening shift

Adult opossums are solitary and nocturnal — active at night — and generally live in burrows and cavities that they find ready-made rather than create themselves. They seek shelter underground, in trees or anywhere in between.

The Virginia opossum is not the brightest of animals. When they are threatened, they pretend to be dead, which is where we get the expression “playing possum.” Sometimes, they do this in response to threats from oncoming traffic, which results in roadkill.

Consider their benefits and the next time you see one playing dead in the road, do your best to avoid hitting it, Ostfeld said.

Also, he said, it is in our best interest to have opossum neighbors. This means keeping their habitat intact with thoughtful land use planning and tolerating them in our yards and share the road with them.

Similar to cats, possums are crazy fastidious grooming animals and when they find a tick, gulp — down the hatch.

While they can’t get them all and certainly get bitten by a few, opossums will destroy some 90 percent of all the ticks they encounter. Knowing the effects of Lyme disease, maybe the little mammals will get a better rap now in the animal world.

— National Wildlife Federation

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