By John McFerrin
Opossums—those not especially cute, often seen as road kill creatures—are now being recognized as the nemesis of another not cute, not cuddly creature. They eat ticks. Ticks have never been contenders for the title of anyone’s favorite wild beast. Their practice of blood sucking did little to endear them to humans. When they started gaining a reputation as a carrier of disease they lost all hope of making it onto anyone’s list of favorite species.
I have always had a grudging admiration for ticks because they are so resilient. When you find one crawling up your leg, looking for a promising spot for lunch, you can pick it off but they are devilishly hard to kill. They are too leathery to smush, too flat and too tough to stomp on. I usually end up doing catch and release or flushing to a watery grave.
Of course, we all like ticks in the abstract. The natural world is a huge, complicated system. If it is to work properly, all the pieces must remain in place. This includes ticks. Yet as much as we all like ticks in the abstract, we want them to make their contribution to the health and stability of the natural world someplace other than where we are.
In their quest to endear themselves to humans (assuming they care about such things), opossums suffer in a couple of ways. The first is that, when they do have human contact, they are usually dead. As I think back, in my entire life I have seen five living opossums. I see that many dead ones on the side of the road every month.
Then there is the way they look. A skinny, naked tail does not help. Skinny, naked tails are the province of rats and other creatures who have few human friends. Opossums are not the least bit cuddly; they have all those teeth which often give them what looks like a grotesque smile.
Then there is the pointy nose and non-existent forehead. There is a common and widely accepted theory that humans prefer animals with more prominent foreheads. Because human babies and young children have foreheads that are proportionately larger than do adults, the prominent forehead is perceived as a child like feature, making the animal more appealing. Animals with pointy noses and sloping foreheads are less appealing. This explains, among other things, why Mickey Mouse has such a prominent forehead compared to his wild brethren. (Incidentally, Mickey’s nose shrank and his forehead grew as he evolved from the mischievous scamp of his early career to the Disney establishment spokes-mouse he is today).
Yet, for all the physical features that make it hard for opossums to appeal to humans, there is one thing that should endear them to humans: they eat ticks. While many animals eat ticks, opossums are the champs, the Roach Motel of the arachnid world. Ticks climb onto opossums, hoping for a meal, but they don’t check out. Opossums are good groomers. When they find a tick, they eat it.
Researchers at Syracuse University have studied the matter, as have others. The researchers captured five different species and infested them with ticks. They then counted the ticks that fell off and determined the number that were eaten. They concluded that the opossums ate over 95% of the ticks that tried to feed on them. This was well ahead of the success rate in killing ticks of any other animal studied. They concluded that an opossum can capture and kill over 5,000 ticks per week.
So consider the opossum. The funny looking and decidedly non-cuddly little creature spends its days waddling around, eating ticks, doing its part to maintain the huge, complicated system that is the natural world. While it is at it, it helps protect the generally unappreciative humans from disease. Not a bad days work.