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MARTHA SEZ: ‘Possums eat thousands of deer ticks, which is a big point in their favor here in Upstate New York’

July 19, 2019
By MARTHA ALLEN , Lake Placid News

What is going on in your backyard after dark? No matter how sophisticated you think you are in your daily life, no matter how strictly you control your environment, there is a lot of Nature out there. So many life forms you know nothing about! These life forms, many of which are nocturnal, are treating your backyard like their own homes.

Some of these life forms are vegetative, some are animal and some may be human. Teenagers are famously nocturnal. Perhaps young Lucy is out there with her boyfriend. Nature plays cruel tricks on girls. Lucy may do fine on her SATs, but don't count on her intelligence when it comes to falling in love. She'd marry the mayhem guy in the Allstate television ads if she had the chance. As Mrs. Perkins, my Ann Arbor landlady, said to me when I optimistically told her I thought young women were getting smarter about dating, "Ain't nobody that smart."

This time of year, there are probably fireflies out there, which makes the North Country night all the more magical and romantic. Fireflies, or lightning bugs, are bioluminescent beetles; they attract mates with flashes of light.

There are more than 2,000 species of fireflies. Some spend their larval state underground, where they glow for no one. In some species, even the eggs glow. Some are aquatic until they reach adulthood. Most taste terrible to predators. The photinus firefly has added protection: A bufotenine like substance in its body, similar to the toxin found in toads.

The photuris species does not contain this toxin, but the female can acquire it by eating photinus males. She captures them in flight, by stealing their bodies out of spider webs, or by luring them under false pretenses by mimicking the flashes of female photinus. Hello, sailor! Then she eats them. Scientists do not know why she eats only males.

Opossums, while possibly not as magical or romantic as fireflies, are also nocturnal creatures that may be in your backyard at night. My sister is, not to put too fine a point on it, freaked out by possums.

I doubt that she would warm up to possums even if she were apprised of all of the interesting possum facts I just learned.

Possums eat thousands of deer ticks, which is a big point in their favor here in Upstate New York.

According to Carey Institute senior scientist Rick Ostfeld, "Opossums are extraordinarily good groomers it turns out-we never would have thought that ahead of time- but they kill the vast majority-more than 95 percent of the ticks that feed on them. So these opossums are walking around the forest floor, hoovering up ticks right and left, killing over 90 percent of these things, and so they are really protecting our health."

Ostfeld has also written that one possum can kill and eat 5,000 ticks in a single season, and we wonder how he ciphered that out. Still, he is a recognized expert on Lyme disease, so we will take his word for it.

Other possum facts: A romantic possum couple can conceive and bear young in just 13 days, in which time the male, apparently not terribly interested in commitment, is long gone. Never mind. Opossums are marsupials. The little ones crawl out of the birth canal on their own, making their way to their mother's pouch. For four months or so they stay with her, sometimes riding on her back.

Possums very rarely become rabid; they are more resistant to rabies than any other wild animal.

Possums are transients, so it is pointless to live-trap them and set them free somewhere else. They are constantly moving on. Removing them just makes room in the ecological system of your backyard for skunks, raccoons and other creatures.

Possums don't dig, because their hands are too delicate, nor can they jump. Despite these drawbacks, they have persisted since dinosaurs (and possums) ruled the world. Their fossil remains date back 70 million years.

Along with ticks, possums eat over-ripe fruit, beetles, cockroaches, snails, slugs, mice and roof rats. They also eat cat food, but oddly enough cats and possums are known to tolerate each other.

This was true, as I have mentioned before in this column, of Ritz and the possums in the avocado tree in the backyard of my daughter Molly and Jim and their children in California.

It may surprise you to learn that there is a National Opossum Society.

Have a good week.

 
 
 

 

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