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The Humble (and Much Maligned) Opossum Could Be Saving Us from a Tick-pocalypse

TPWD photo
TPWD photo
Opossums are extremely passive, but they eat things that do us a lot of harm.

Springtime in Texas is a pretty good deal, most days. The weather's warmer than much of the country and it's always tempting to take a stroll through the yard or the woods.

But all, of course, is not perfect. Springtime in Texas also means the beginning of tick season. 

Texas has four main types of tick. The brown dog tick, the American dog tick, the Lone Star tick, and, of course, the one everyone worries about most, the black-legged deer tick. That's the one that carries Lyme disease.

There’s not much defense against the deer tick. It’s especially small and its bite might go unnoticed until the parasites it leaves behind are well in your blood stream. And even if they're not as common here as, say, New England, from where they hail, deer ticks do cause trouble or Texans.

What you might not know is that one of the best defenses against ticks, including the worrisome one, is that Texas has plenty of opossums. That's significant because the humble (and, sadly, maligned and misunderstood) opossum saves us all from being covered in ticks and other bugs.

Sam Kieschnick, an urban wildlife biologist with Texas Parks & Wildlife, says the omnivorous, opportunistic opossum will eat whatever it finds.  That includes ticks. A lot of ticks. According to the National Wildlife Federation, a single opossum can eat as many as 4,000 ticks a week.

What’s more, Kieschnick says, opossums have a naturally low body temperature that makes them nearly impervious to venom. Which means they actually are able to eat venomous snakes. We have four types of those in Northeast Texas too, and opossums help keep the dangerous ones in check.

The problem is that people tend to be afraid of opossums. They look like large rodents, but they're actually marsupials. In fact, they're North America’s only native marsupial, which means they’re more related to kangaroos than they are to rats.

But they look like rats and they hiss and they growl, which makes people think they're going to attack.

It's really unlikely that an opossum actually will, Kieschnick says. 

"They’re a very, very passive animal," he says.  "I would hope people wouldn’t be afraid of them."

A hissing opossum is not an angry opossum. It's actually scared and hopes you go away. It's much more likely to run from you or seize up with fear to make you think it's dead than to attack, despite that it has a mouthful of ominous-looking teeth.

"Their whole MO," Klieschnick says, "is avoidance."

If by some long shot an opossum did bite you, there's not much evidence to show it will give you any kind of infection. THey don't carry rabies, because remember -- they're marsupials, not rats. 

Kieschnick says they might not be pretty, and they can be a nuisance when they find their way into your attic, but opossums are actually pretty amazing and beneficial once you know a thing or two about them.

And if you leave them to clear out all the ticks and snakes in your yard.

Scott Morgan has been an award-winning journalist since 2001. His work has appeared in several newspapers and magazines as well as online. He has also been an editor, freelancer, speaker, writing teacher, author, and podcaster.