Benefits Of Opossums: Are Possums Good To Have Around
By: Laura Miller
America’s only marsupial tends to have a bad reputation.Perhaps, it’s the opossum’s appearance and nocturnal lifestyle that makes thiscreature so unappealing. After all, spotting a large rat-like creature withbeady eyes and a scavenger’s appetite in a beam of light is just plain creepy.
Are Possums Good to Have Around?
Surprisingly, the answer is yes. Compared to other types ofwildlife, they are very helpful. Opossums not only play an essential role inthe ecosystem, but they can also be a valuable asset to your garden, in spiteof the fact that most people are quick to controltheir numbers.
Opossums, sometimes called possum, benefits your garden byridding it of small insects and pests. As omnivores, opossums consume a varietyof foods. This includes the beetles, slugs,and snailswhich damage garden plants.
These nocturnal creatures also consume plant matter. Ingeneral, the opossum prefers fallen or rotting vegetation to fresh. Cleaning updropped fruits and vegetables, which can harbor disease, is another benefit tohaving these creatures around.
Do Possums Control Ticks?
In many areas of the United States, tick populations havebeen increasing. These pests are carriers of Lyme disease and Rocky Mountainspotted fever. As ticks have become more numerous, so have the incidents oftick-borne diseases. Horticultural activities, such as weeding, put gardenersat increased risk.
One of the biggest benefits of opossums is their ability to controlticks. As meticulous groomers, opossums consume about 95 percent of theticks which hitch a ride on their mammalian bodies. It’s estimated that a singleopossum eliminates over 5,000 ticks from the environment each year.
Consider these additional possum benefits:
- Opossums hunt, kill, and eat mice, rats, and snakes (including poisonous ones).
- Opossums are scavengers and clean up dead animal carcasses.
- Opossums have a natural resistance to rabies and botulism, so they aren’t likely to spread these diseases.
- Opossums are immune to the toxins in bee and scorpion stings.
- Opossums don’t dig deep holes, but they will occupy burrows of other animals.
Unfortunately, there are also some disadvantages to having the helpful opossum hanging around your home and garden. Consider these opossum facts before enticing them to stay:
- As scavengers, opossums will gladly consume pet food left outdoors. They have excellent memories and return night after night to finish up what Fido or kitty leave behind.
- They can have fleas and drop flea larvae and eggs in your yard and garden.
- Opossums are opportunists who will gladly shelter in your home, garage, or outbuildings.
- They will help themselves to the kitchen scraps in your compost pile or bags of garbage set out for trash collection.
- Opossum are carriers of equine protozoal myeloencephalitis or EPM. Grass, hay, and grain contaminated by opossum feces can transmit this incurable and deadly disease to horses.
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10 Things You Didn't Know About Opossums
Stan Tekiela Author / Naturalist / Wildlife Photographer / Getty Images
The Virginia opossum has the distinction of being both the only opossum and the only marsupial native to North America. Colloquially called possums, Virginia opossums should not be confused with arboreal marsupials of Australia and New Guinea that are also known as possums. Virginia opossums are found in North America east of the Rockies and along the western coast of the United States, as well as in Central America. According to the IUCN, the population of Virginia opossums is increasing and they are not considered at risk.
Due to their rat-like appearance, opossums have a less-than-stellar reputation. But these clever nocturnal critters have a lot going for them. They have a natural tolerance for snake venom and they eat parasitic ticks and garden pests. Just like their marsupial relatives, female opossums, called jills, carry joeys in their pouches. From opposable toes to an ability to feign death in an instant, discover the most fascinating facts about the opossum.
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.
We know that their faces and tails remind some people of rats, especially if encountered in dim light and running fast. In evolutionary biology, the independent development of somewhat similar features in response to similar environmental challenges is called "good move." Muzzle shape is useful for detecting the direction of the scent and sniffing out bugs under the soil. Tails that look scaly are not too sleek, they do not collect dirt and moisture when digging the ground, and are an excellent adaptation for balancing and climbing.
Opossum mother with her babies riding on her back.
Like in other marsupials, babies are born underdeveloped, almost fetal stage. They will crawl into the pouch and continue their development there. The pups grow rapidly, but even after they are ready to leave the pouch, the mother will not leave them behind and will carry them on her back while she scavenges for a meal for about 100 days. When not on the female's back, or holding her tail, they keep in touch by communication through bird-like sounds, clicks, and lip-smacking sound.
Opossums: Good or Bad for the Garden?
Opossums are reviled for their appearance, but can be helpful in the garden.
Photo by: Photo by Mick Telkamp
It’s tough being an opossum. Resembling an oversized rat with coarse gray fur, a long hairless tail, a toothy sneer and long snout, the opossum is unlikely to win any beauty pageants. Lumbering awkwardly in the night, foraging through garbage and dining on anything it can get its weak paws on, the Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana) has a reputation as a dirty, rabies-ridden beast to be reviled and scorned. For the backyard gardener, it may be time to give the opossum another look.
Despite its rodent-like features, the opossum (commonly abbreviated to “possum”) is actually the only marsupial native to North America. Like its Aussie cousin the kangaroo, the opossum has a pouch in which to carry its young after a gestation period of just 13 days. Of a litter of as many as two dozen jellybean-sized babies, up to a dozen may survive to maturity, meaning plenty of opossums will reach foraging age.
Once opossums are old enough to scavenge on their own, everything is fair game for these omnivores, giving them a reputation as pests as they dig into unsecured trash cans, pilfer outdoor pet food or help themselves to unprotected eggs in the chicken coop. Although opossums have been known to attack chickens when food is scarce, the opossums' diet usually reflects its lumbering, slow-moving lifestyle, eating what has been left behind by other animals, left unattended or fallen to the ground.
Believe it or not, for a gardener with lids on garbage cans and a secure chicken coop, the opossum can be considered a friend. Although they are good climbers, opossums prefer to eat food from the ground, the smellier and softer the better. With a taste for rotten produce, carrion and easily-reached prey like slugs, snails and the occasional mouse, think of the opossum as the clean-up night crew, clearing out fallen fruit and happily munching away on pests that can do actual damage in the garden. It isn’t unthinkable that an opossum will sample low-hanging fruit still on the vine, but a penchant for overripe produce generally means the opossum does more good than harm in the home garden.
Although opossums are prone to carry parasites and diseases associated with rotten food, the risk of contracting rabies from these misunderstood critters is low. A low body temperature makes rabies extremely rare and even then, opossums are unlikely to attack or even defend themselves from humans or larger animals. When confronted, opossums commonly freeze in their tracks, hissing and baring teeth. When the threat is especially high, they will “play possum," falling over stiff and feigning death, remaining rigid and completely still for up to four hours. The passive defense mechanism of opossums doesn’t always work in their favor, especially when the aggressor is oncoming traffic.
Even though opossums are the gardener’s friend, many would prefer they stay away. To discourage opossums from your yard, keep garbage cans secured, don’t leave pet food outside and clean up fallen fruit or rotted plant materials as soon as they develop. Opossums also like to lurk under buildings and decks. Barriers preventing access to these hideaways may send the nomadic opossum in search of more hospitable surroundings.
For most, though, nocturnal visits from the lowly opossum will range from harmless to helpful. Just don’t get too close. Fleas and lice are par for the course and although they aren’t often aggressive, opossums do have a mouth full of pointed teeth.
Fortunately, you’ll probably know when they’re nearby. They smell lousy. These guys can’t catch a break.
Opossums are misunderstood, but beneficial to humans
When one hears the word “marsupial,” the opossum doesn’t usually come to mind. But the Virginia opossum is actually the only marsupial native to North America. These passive animals are often quite misunderstood. Usually only spotted around trash after the bin was knocked over by a raccoon or dead on the road after a car strike, the average person rarely gets the opportunity to observe these unique animals that are shy, gentle and offer many benefits to humans.
If you’re an organic gardener, you should love opossums. Yes, you may have to share ripe fruit with them, as they have a major sweet tooth. But they’ll also clean the ground below your fruit tree of dropped, overripe and sometimes downright fermented fruit. More importantly, they love to snack on all kinds of garden pests, including rats and mice, slugs and snails, crane flies and moths. Opossums are a gardener’s best friend. They are also useful scavengers and will eat a variety of dead animals they find in their travels.
Opossums often get blamed for nuisance behavior of other wildlife. An opossum is unlikely to knock over a garbage can, but it will take advantage of spilled garbage after the raccoons are done. Opossums don’t dig, but they will take advantage of worms and grubs unearthed by a digging skunk.
Your domestic dog or cat is a far bigger threat to an opossum than the opossum is to them. The second most common reason (after car strikes) that opossums come to WildCare’s wildlife hospital is that mama opossum was grabbed and shaken by a domestic dog. Mother opossums carry their babies in a pouch on their stomach, called a marsupium. Often, when mom is killed by a car or a dog, her pups are still safe inside her pouch. If you see an opossum dead on the side of the road, and it’s safe to do so, check the pouch for living pups. If you don’t feel comfortable checking a dead opossum for babies, call Marin Humane. If babies are present, bring them, still in the mother’s pouch, to WildCare right away. You can also call our “Living with Wildlife Hotline” at 415-456-7283 for advice.
Another reason to love opossums is that they eat ticks, and can consume about 5,000 per season. They truly are champions in the fight against Lyme disease. Opossums are essentially immune to the rabies virus. Their average body temperature is about 94 to 96 degrees, too low for the rabies virus to take hold. They don’t get distemper (that’s a canine disease). And they’re essentially immune to pit viper (i.e. rattlesnake) venom.
Opossums are great climbers. They have a prehensile tail, which they use as a safety line but they don’t hang by their tails to sleep — Disney made that up. They do use their dexterous tails to carry dried leaf litter and grasses back to their den for bedding. To help them climb, these amazing animals also have opposable thumbs on both their front and back feet.
Opossums are good mothers. They’ll carry up to 13 babies in their marsupium for more than three months until they are old enough to emerge and ride on Mom’s back. Once they get too large, they will fall off her back, usually one or two at a time. At that point, the young opossum is on its own, ready to get to work eating the ticks, slugs, snails and other unwanted garden pests in your yard.
WildCare and Marin Humane encourage you to appreciate these amazing animals, and to keep an eye out for injured and orphaned opossums this time of year.