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THE “POSSUM” – AN OHDEER ALLY IN ALL-NATURAL TICK CONTROL

Opossum (image credit: Lisa Hagan/Shutterstock)

ohDEER, founded in 2007, is the leader in all-natural deer, mosquito, and tick control.

We are based in Wayland, MA.  Through 0ur corporate headquarters and our growing franchise network, ohDEER provides service throughout Massachusetts, including the islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket; the eastern part of Long Island in New York State; and central New Jersey.

Discussed here in this space a few years ago were animals who are successful and effective in preying on and consuming ticks.

These ohDEER partners in keeping your property free of ticks include turkeys, chickens, frogs, lizards, guinea fowl, and opossums.

A primary reason, of course, that ticks and humans interacting is not good is because when ticks fasten themselves on to a person, in the interest of ingesting and making a meal of our blood, they can transmit Lyme disease to their human host.

Today we are going to give special attention to the opossum – or “possum” – as this strange-looking critter is often called.

Possums are marsupials and of the order Didelphimorphia.  The name marsupial is derived from the technical term for an animal pouch: marsupium. Most, but not all, marsupials have pouches. Birth and early rearing of young, among marsupials with pouches, involves a baby possum moving from the mother’s birth canal to the pouch where it resides and nurses for two to two-and-half months before emerging.

A possum mother usually gives birth to six to nine babies – but as many as 25.  No more than 13 survive because there are only 13 teats within the pouch on which the offspring can feed.

Early on after emerging from the pouch of the mother, the infant possums ride on mom’s back while she looks for food.

About 70 percent of the 334 worldwide extant species of marsupials – including kangaroos, koalas, wallabies, and wombats – live exclusively on the Australian continent.

Curiously, though, all marsupials originated in present day South America.  How so many types of marsupials ended up in the Land Down Under has, it seems, much to do with large land masses splitting apart some 80 million years ago.

In South America, there are a little more than 70 species of marsupials, all either types of possums or shrew possums, with the exception of the monito del monte (Spanish for “little mountain monkey”).

The only marsupial species north of Mexico is the Virginia opossum, commonly called the North American opossum.   Then, again, the term “possum” is also in frequent use.

Possums eat a lot of ticks.  Yes, possums like ticks.

Now, here’s the thing, in that possums are, like humans, warm-blooded, they are favored by ticks looking for blood food.  Ticks most certainly try to suck up possum blood.

But even as ticks make it on to possum hair, and begin to attach themselves to the skin of the animal, the possum turns the tables on the tick.

This is because possums are fastidious groomers – like cats in this regard.

And since possums – in the interest of keeping things clean and tidy – are always licking and rooting in their coats and undercoats, they dislodge … and summarily consume … about 90 percent of those ticks advancing to the trough.

One possum can take out 5,000 ticks during a single season.

This all works for ohDEER.

We are thoroughly signed off on and okay with possums serving as our wing mate in the quest to create and maintain tick-free places.

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And we did want to touch on here the condition and exercise of “playing possum.”

Do opossums really fake or play dead?

Well, possums don’t feign being down and out.  Rather it is an involuntary act called apparent death … or thanatosis or tonic immobility … that possums and other animals perform as a sort of self-preservation.

But, for sure, playing possum is not necessarily this marsupial’s first response to a threat.  For it has claws and sharp teeth (52 teeth, actually – more than any other mammal in North America), and can be downright nasty in fighting.

Yet when scratching and biting and brawling fail – and sometimes absent of all of this – the possum drops into a sort of shock and semi rigor mortis.  Its mind and eyes are working just fine; it knows what is going on all around it – but its body is still.

What evolutionary benefit does this render?  After all, wouldn’t a recently deceased possum represent to a hungry animal … maybe even one half-starved … an easy protein fix?

Not really.  And that is because, and let’s just take the case of the possum, apparent death involves another biological response: making itself unappetizing.

To render itself literally distasteful, the possum in its play dead phase excretes a vile and viscous and disgusting substance that smells like rotting flesh.

The combination of not moving and smell of decay informs the animal which heretofore had been looking at the possum as a meal that … actually … the possum would be unhealthy to consume.  And the hunter will move on.

Playing possum, for obvious reasons, is less effective in the quest to stay alive when the threat is a motor vehicle.  Then, again, the person driving – if he manages to even see the possum – could drive around it.

Yet, in that a possum plays dead from, on the average, anywhere from 40 minutes to four hours, it is not long to live for just about any possum reacting to an oncoming motor vehicle with tonic immobility.

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When thinking about the opossum, we at ohDEER prefer to reflect on happier and sunlit episodes than apparent death.

ohDEER likes to focus on the opossum as our friend and our teammate in all-natural and effective tick control.