By: Ashley Bergeron
There is only one marsupial living in North America: the opossum. Out of 65 species of opossums, only Didelphis virginiana, or Virginia opossum, lives in North America.
Opossums are herbivores, meaning that they eat both meat and plants. They enjoy a range of food, from fruit and nuts to snakes and insects. Opossums are also scavengers, which means that they eat discarded food and carrion, or meat they find rather than hunt for. They also enjoy eating overripe fruit.
Despite what people might think of opossums, the marsupials are extremely clean. They constantly groom themselves and are known as “nature’s little sanitation engineer”. Compared to other mammals, they are very unlikely to have rabies
There is currently a debate about whether opossums eat ticks or not. A 2009 study found that opossums in the experiment ate from 86% to 90% of ticks they carried in a four-day period. This showed that opossums are excellent at getting rid of the Lyme disease carrier.
However, a study in 2021 found the opposite results. In their research “Are Virginia opossums really ecological traps for ticks? Groundtruthing laboratory observations”, C. Hennessy and K. Hild conducted research on 32 opossums in Illinois where they searched through the opossums’ stomachs for ticks or any tick body part. They did not find any ticks or tick body part in any of the stomachs. This provided evidence against the claim that opossums eat ticks. There have been critiques of the 2009 study as they didn’t check the mammals’ bodies after four days; they assumed that ticks that weren’t on the dish were eaten. There is the possibility that opossums eat ticks but right now, research is leaning more toward not
So, if opossums don’t eat ticks, how do they benefit the ecosystem? Opossums help with rodent control since they eat mice and rats, and they also take care of pesty insects. Since they eat carrion, opossums will also take care of any dead carcasses in the area. Rotting fruit that is bad for the ecosystem will also be cleared out by opossums.
There are multiple ways to help opossums. One of them is to drive slowly at night. Opossums are nocturnal, which means most of their waking hours are during the night. Cars are one of the main killers of opossums, especially at night in poorly lit areas. By driving slowly, you will be able to make sure that you won’t hit an opossum or any animal that could also be on the road.
Just like any other wild animal, it is not a good idea to have opossums in your house, either as a pest or a pet. In order to prevent them from entering your house, opossum-proof it; this includes filling holes an opossum could fit in and putting mothballs around the property to deter opossums, as they don’t like the smell.
As for keeping opossums as pets, the main issue is the improper diet that owners give to their marsupials. This causes these opossums to develop Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD) which refers to a large spectrum of bone disorders. Unless you’re a wildlife professional, do not take any opossums as pets into your home.
If you find a sick, injured or lone young opossum, there are some things you can do. First thing is to check if the opossum is actually young if it is not sick or injured. Opossums leave their mothers at about four months old and will be at least seven inches long, excluding the tail. For reference, an unsharpened #2 pencil is 7.5 inches long. If the opossum looks shorter than a pencil, then it is young and should be with its mother.
After you have figured out if it is young, listen for a sneezing sound. Young opossums make a sneezing sound to communicate with their mother. In response, their mother will make a clicking sound. Make sure to give the young opossum some space. Their mother will not go to them if you’re right next to them.
The next step is to call a wildlife professional that specializes in opossums. On the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR)’s website (in.gov/dnr), there is a list of wildlife control officers with their contact information. Not every single one has expertise in opossums, so make sure to see if they do or not. If you are in Michigan and need assistance with an opossum, you can find more information on the Michigan Bat Control website (mibatcontrol.com) and the Michiana Wildlife Trpaping website (michianawildlifetrapping.com).
If you want to learn more about opossums, check out the website for the Opossum Society of the United States at opossumsocietyus.org.