If you’ve ever seen an opossum, you know, that semi creepy-looking marsupial with their hallmark ratlike tail, hind feet, and opposable thumb, chances are you jumped a bit.
Typically, we might see them scattering across the road when we’re driving at night (which of course only ups the freak-out meter) as you brake to a screeching halt. They could also end up in your yard, which might gross you out a bit.
They’re one of the oldest mammals in the world, and honestly, one of the most interesting. But contrary to popular belief, opossums aren’t all that scary. In fact, they’re probably more scared of you than you are of them.
In fact, they’re known for “playing possum,” or “playing dead” when they feel at all threatened, and will literally mimic the appearance and smell of a sick or dead animal. It’s physiological, not on purpose—think of how a human might faint if they become so shocked or worn.
All in all, opossums are surely some pretty interesting creatures—and they’re about to get even more so.
A few years back, scientists decided to research how different mammals play a part in the spread of the ticks Lyme disease. They tested six different species (white-footed mice, chipmunks, squirrels, opossums, veerys, and catbirds) by exposing each of these critters to approximately 100 ticks. And what they found is kind of crazy!
The scientists found that opossums were really good at getting rid of the ticks—way more than any of the other animals they tested.
Like cats, opossums are pretty meticulous about their fur. It turns out that if they find a tick on their bodies, they lick it off and swallow it.
“I had no suspicion they’d be such efficient tick-killing animals,” said Richard Ostfeld, of the Cary Institute for Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, New York.
And yes, just to confirm, because we know you were thinking it: The scientists studied their bowel movements to ensure that that’s where the ticks were going. In fact, that’s how they were able to find that in just one season, an opossum can kill about 5,000 ticks! Isn’t that insane?
While they don’t necessarily kill every tick that gets on them, scientists say that around 90 percent of the ticks end up being swallowed by the opossum.
That means they could easily be inhibiting the spread of Lyme disease, which is amazing for us humans. About 300,000 Americans get Lyme each year, according to the CDC, with a total of 402,502 cases reported between 2004-2016. Additionally, there are lots of other tick-borne diseases that they could be inhibiting the spread of.
So next time you see an opossum, try not to freak out and run away screaming. They’re actually good creatures and deserve to just be let be if you happen to see one on your property—just think, they’re likely getting rid of your ticks so you don’t have to hire someone to come spray your yard!
“They’re a destroyers of ticks,” Ostfeld said. “People are so hard on them.”
Have you ever seen an opossum in your yard before? Did you they that they eat ticks?