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LBL Wildlife Report: Opossums, The Unsung O-Heroes

Liam Wolff
Wikimedia Commons
Opossums do not carry rabies, eat thousands of ticks a year, and are a predator of venomous snakes.

In the next installment of the Land Between the Lakes Wildlife Report, Tracy Ross and Woodlands Nature Station lead naturalist John Pollpeter discuss the unsung heroes of the animal kingdom, the opossum.

Opossums are one of the most common animals in the Land Between the Lakes area, though many people know them colloquially as "possums." "The actual name 'opossum' is an Algonquin word that just means 'white animal," Pollpeter explains.

While opossums are well-known for playing dead, Pollpeter says the process is a bit more complicated. "So, your dog comes up and starts barking at that possum. The first thing it's going to do is show all of its 50 teeth. It has more teeth than any other mammal in the United States."

"And then, it's going to start making hissy sounds," he continues. "When that dog continues to bark, [the opossum] actually goes into shock. Its brain, which is very primitive, shuts down, and it faints. It's like a fainting goat. It can't control it."

"For the poor possum, he basically pees his pants. And when he pees his pants, he makes this very not-pleasant smell. The dog gets bored with it, and it doesn't look as appealing as it did before. Sometimes these fainting spells can actually last for about four hours."

"They literally pee themselves and faint?" Ross laughs.

"They lose their bladder control. Oddly enough, this strange quirk of nature where their brain sort of short circuits has worked for them," Pollpeter replies. "It's one of those things, 'well, I survived better now because my brain shuts down' kind of thing."

Opossums are the only wild marsupial in the United States. "There's so many things about these guys that I love," Pollpeter says. "Most people, when they think of them, especially when they come see them at the Nature Station, they think of them as dirty, as garbage eaters, they look like giant rats. They're not rats. They're marsupials. They're very different."

Opossums also provide several ecological services, Pollpeter explains. "One, they are one of the top predators of venomous snakes. They can take a bite out of a copperhead and survive. Having possums in your yard means you probably have less venomous snakes that you have to worry about in your yard."

"Another one," Pollpeter continues, "is that possums can eat up to 4,000 to 9,000 ticks in a year. Nobody likes having ticks. The way the possum runs through the grass, through the leaves, it picks ticks up all the time."

"Possums are very clean animals. They clean themselves all the time. When they clean themselves, they eat the ticks. I think for that reason alone, possums are one of my favorite heroes."

"The last one is that possums are one of the few mammals that does not get rabies. So, the fact that it's a scavenger, it's actually cleaning up the environment. If there is something out there that died of rabies and then a possum eats it, that basically stops the rabies virus from moving onto the next animal like a coyote, a fox, or a raccoon," Pollpeter says.

"Sounds like possums are an underrated hero of the animal world," Ross says.

"I definitely think so," Pollpeter replies.

Find more LBL Wildlife Reports here. For more information on Land Between the Lakes or the Woodlands Nature Station, visit their website.

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