Turns out opossums play key role in tick and Lyme control

Jeff MulhollemYou can understand it these days if motorists in southeastern Pennsylvania – where Lyme disease is perhaps more prevalent than anywhere else in the world – are swerving to avoid hitting opossums that they used to flatten without too much thought.

And if they’re not, they should be. Because opossums often play dead when they are frightened – like when they are in the middle of the road and see oncoming traffic. But now we have learned that opossums are an ally in the fight against the spread of Lyme disease.

Opossums, like many other small and medium-sized mammals, are hosts for ticks looking for a blood meal. But opossums are remarkably efficient at eliminating foraging ticks, according to a researcher.

"In a way, opossums are the unsung heroes in the Lyme Disease epidemic," says Rick Ostfeld, author of a book on Lyme disease ecology and a senior scientist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies.

"Because many ticks try to feed on opossums and few of them survive the experience. 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 try to 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 they are really protecting our health."

So, particularly in eastern Pennsylvania, it's in people’s best interest to have opossum neighbors. This means not only protecting their habitat and tolerating them in yards, but also not making them roadkill.

Categories: PenBlogs, Pennsylvania – Jeff Mulhollem

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