Thank an Opossum for Fighting Lyme Disease

This baby opossum will likely consume over 15,000 ticks in its lifetime, reducing the overall population of the ticks that can carry Lyme disease. (Photo: Jay Ondreicka/Shutterstock)

Recently, a mother in Mississippi posted a desperate Facebook message pleading with fellow parents to check their children for ticks. Her young daughter woke up one morning and couldn't walk. She also had trouble talking. Her mother went to brush her hair and found a tick embedded in her scalp.

She put the tick in a resealable plastic bag and rushed her daughter to the ER. Many tests later, it turns out the girl was suffering from tick paralysis, an uncommon condition caused by a bite from a female tick on the scalp.

Thankfully, the girl made a full recovery and is back home with her family. But the story is an important reminder to be vigilant against ticks. One natural way to cut down on ticks in the area? Let opossums gobble them up.

Tick-eating machines

Photo: Lisa Hagan/Shutterstock

Opossums are not beloved creatures. With their long faces, naked tails and beady eyes, they're not cute in the traditional sense. Regardless of what you think of their looks, possums perform an important ecosystem service: They eat ticks.

In fact, possums love to eat ticks, including black-legged ticks, which carry Lyme disease. We know this from a study that looked at six animals: white-footed mice, chipmunks, possums, veerys (a type of thrush), catbirds and squirrels. Each type of animal was captured, caged and exposed to 100 ticks.

They found that of the six, opossums were remarkably good at getting rid of the ticks. That's because possums are fastidiously clean, spending hours cleaning themselves like cats do. As the possums clean their fur, they pick off and swallow the ticks, which kills the arachnids. They find between 90 to 95 percent of the ticks on their bodies.

According to the study's estimates, a single possum can destroy 5,000 ticks in a season. Possums live 2 to 4 years, so over a lifetime, that's tens of thousands of ticks. And importantly, those ticks don't go on to make more ticks.

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

Like all scavengers, possums clear away old, rotting stuff that would otherwise lead to a much stinkier world. They seek out overripe fruits and berries, as well as dead animals. Possums also prey on live roaches, rats and mice. Gardeners often appreciate and encourage possums to hang out nearby because they eat snails and slugs that would otherwise consume the plants.

So next time you see a passel of possums, keep in mind all the good they do, even if you don't think they're cute.