The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) documented nearly 60,000 cases of tickborne disease within the United States in 2018. Tick populations have been rising, resulting in an increased spread of tickborne illness, including Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever.
With the return of warm weather, there is one unsung hero of the animal kingdom that helps keep the environmental tick levels down. The humble Virginia opossum, America’s only marsupial, kills nearly 95% of ticks that cross their path. It is estimated that a single opossum is capable of eating an estimated 5,000 ticks every season!
Along with helping keep tick populations under control, the Virginia opossum provides numerous benefits to the environment that might be overlooked by the general public.
Opossums help keep your neighborhood clear of unwanted pests.
Opossums frequently eat pests like cockroaches, rats, and mice that can also be carriers of infectious disease.
Opossums help keep your garden flourishing!
In addition to eating common household pests, opossums also eat snails and slugs that can wreak havoc on your backyard garden. They also can help clean up any overripe fruits or berries that may have fallen to the wayside.
Opossums help minimize your risk of encountering venous species!
The Virginia opossum is resistant to snake venom, making these venomous animals a good source of food. Here in Illinois, the opossum can prey on southern and northern copperheads and the timber rattlesnake.
Opossums help keep a clean neighborhood with low risk of developing and spreading rabies!
Out of the many native wildlife species that can be found in your backyard, the Virginia opossum has one of the lowest risks for developing and spreading rabies. This is due to their naturally low body temperature (94º to 97º F) that makes it difficult for the rabies virus to replicate within the opossum’s body. They also are scavengers by nature, and their preference for carrion prevents the spread of other diseases as well!
As you can see, opossums provide numerous benefits to our local community to help with disease and pest control.
In 2018, the Wildlife Medical Clinic helped to care for 166 opossums that were sick, injured, or orphaned. We also care for Delphine, our resident ambassador opossum.
Opossums are America’s only marsupial and their young spend their first two months in the mother’s pouch. At the ripe old age of five months, opossums are ready to leave mom and be out on their own. The Virginia opossum is nocturnal, relying primarily on smell and touch to find food. As adults, opossums are typically not aggressive, often preferring to “play possum” instead of fight.
If you find a sick, injured, or orphaned opossum, we encourage you to contact the Wildlife Medical Clinic or a licensed wildlife rehabilitator for help.
By Mary Kate Feldner, University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine Class of 2021
Sources: https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2019/s0422-new-tick-resource.html https://blog.nwf.org/2017/06/opossums-unsung-heroes-in-the-fight-against-ticks-and-lyme-disease/ https://vetmed.illinois.edu/wildlife/wildlife-help-and-resources/opossum/ https://vetmed.illinois.edu/wildlife/fun-facts/opossum