Opossums May Not Be the Tick Eaters We Thought, Study Suggests

Have you heard the popular claim that opossums are nature’s little tick vacuums, gobbling up to 5,000 of these disease-spreading pests per season? It’s a fascinating idea that has captured the public’s imagination and endeared many to these unique marsupials.

But is it true? I decided to investigate and separate fact from fiction in the world of opossums and ticks.

Do Opossums Really Eat Ticks?

Image Credit: Davin Eberhardt

The notion of opossums as tick-control champions has been making the rounds online for years. Countless websites, social media posts, and even some reputable publications have repeated the claim that a single opossum can hoover up thousands of ticks each year, potentially putting a significant dent in the spread of tick-borne illnesses like Lyme disease.

It’s an appealing narrative – after all, who wouldn’t love the idea of a cute, furry creature solving a major public health problem while just going about its nightly business? The mental image of an opossum’s little pink nose snuffling through the underbrush, tongue darting out to snatch up tick after tick, is undeniably charming.

However, recent research challenges this widely held belief, revealing that opossums may not be as enthusiastic about eating ticks as previously thought. Despite their potential to consume large numbers of ticks, studies suggest that ticks do not make up a significant part of their diet.

Tracing the Claim to Its Source

Image Credit: GSPhotography/Shutterstock

But as any good researcher knows, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. So where did this idea originate?

It turns out, the primary source is a 2009 study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B [1]. In this study, researchers placed ticks on different species of captive animals, including opossums, and counted how many ticks remained after a period of time.

The opossums appeared to be quite efficient at removing ticks, with most of the ticks placed on them disappearing. The researchers extrapolated from this that a wild opossum could potentially eat around 5,500 ticks per week during tick season.

And thus, a legend was born.

Issues with the Opossum-Tick Study

Image Credit: Lonny Garris/Shutterstock

However, there are some significant limitations to this study that call into question the broad claims made about opossums and tick control. Firstly, it was a very small study, involving only six captive opossums.

Drawing sweeping conclusions from such a limited sample size is problematic.

Additionally, the study didn’t directly observe tick consumption. The researchers assumed that missing ticks had been eaten, but it’s possible they were simply groomed off and left in the environment. Captive conditions may also not accurately reflect wild opossum behavior and diet.

Expert Skepticism

Dr. Bret Collier, a professor of wildlife ecology at Louisiana State University, expresses serious doubts about the idea of opossums actively controlling tick populations. Dr. Collier states ² emphatically that there is no evidence opossums are seeking out ticks to consume, as ticks are not a preferred food item for these animals.

Wild opossums are opportunistic omnivores, foraging on a wide variety of foods such as insects, small mammals, fruits, and even garbage. Ticks are unlikely to make up a significant part of their natural diet.

Additionally, since ticks do not cluster in large groups, it is improbable that any animal, including opossums, would consume ticks in high numbers while grooming.

The Bottom Line

While it’s clear that opossums, like many animals, do groom off and incidentally kill some ticks, the evidence simply doesn’t support the idea that they are tick-control superheroes devouring thousands of ticks per year. The popular claims appear to be based on a misinterpretation of limited lab research and a tendency to oversimplify complex ecological relationships.

Opossums are fascinating and valuable creatures in their own right, but promoting them as a tick panacea may be misleading. As Dr. Collier put it, “Opossums are an important part of the ecosystem, but we shouldn’t expect them to solve our tick problems. That’s not their job.”

So the next time you see a claim about opossums and ticks, remember to approach it with a healthy dose of skepticism. Nature is full of wonders, but it rarely provides simple solutions to complex issues like tick-borne disease.

As always, the truth is more nuanced than a catchy headline.

Read Next

Image Credit: Daniel E. Wray/Shutterstock

Specific scents can draw snakes to your yard, transforming it into an unintended sanctuary for these slithering visitors. With their acute sense of smell, snakes not only hunt but also seek out comfortable habitats, which may unfortunately include your backyard.

Here are the common smells that attract snakes and some effective strategies to manage their presence.

[1] Keesing, F., Brunner, J., Duerr, S., Killilea, M., LoGiudice, K., Schmidt, K., … & Ostfeld, R. S. (2009). Hosts as ecological traps for the vector of Lyme disease. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 276(1675), 3911-3919. https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/abs/10.1098/rspb.2009.1159

Website | + posts

Davin is a jack-of-all-trades but has professional training and experience in various home and garden subjects. He leans on other experts when needed and edits and fact-checks all articles.