Don’t Get ‘Ticked Off’ if Possums Like to Visit Your Backyard
Dr. James J. S. Johnson
When I consider Thy heavens, the work of Thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which Thou hast ordained; what is man, that Thou art mindful of him? And the son of man, that Thou visitest him? For Thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and [Thou] hast crowned him with glory and honor. Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of Thy hands; Thou hast put all things under his feet: all sheep and oxen, yea, and the beasts of the field; the fowl of the air, and the fish of the sea, and whatsoever passeth through [i.e., across] the paths of the seas. O LORD our Lord, how excellent is Thy name in all the earth! (Psalm 8:3-8)
Does if help human health, if our forests have healthy possum populations?
On Earth we live after the Curse,
In habitats biodiverse;
Some beasts make us sick,
Like the Lyme disease tick!
Yet, without possums, it would be worse!
Being careful with God’s creation is a “win-win” situation, and it’s the right thing to do. When we act responsibly, as good stewards of God’s creation, we end up benefiting ourselves as well as multifarious animals that God has created.
Not that we should be surprised! – it makes perfect sense that God would balance blessings to mankind with blessings for the rest of His animate creation, including His many categories of creatures of the air, on the land, and in the sea.(1)
Even those marsupials that we call “possums” can bless us, as we shall see.
This interdependent “win-win” interrelationship — of people and animals sharing the same inextricably intertwined ecosystem, and benefitting one another in the process — has been noticed, in part, by secular-minded ecologists (like Professor Tom Horton, who is quoted repeatedly below), who recognize the valuable “win-win” mutualism that inextricably intertwines Earth’s biodiversity (e.g., how human health benefits when the environment itself is treated responsibly). However, secular-minded ecologists ignore how those same “mutual aid” benefits are practical evidence of God’s well-planned, preprogrammed, and caring providences.(2)
Protecting the environment is usually easier to the extent we can link it to human health concerns. The tough federal Clean Air Act, for example, has been driving the Chesapeake Bay cleanup by reducing nitrogen [i.e., airborne NOx compounds, such as NO2 — which can lead to nitric acid-derived “acid rain”] pollution from dirty air; but the real impetus for the law is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s estimate that it’s saving more than 160,000 human lives each year. A far tougher sell has been promoting biodiversity, by maintaining and restoring the full suite of plants and animals and natural habitats that are under assault here and globally. “But what if the loss of biodiversity made you sick … made you and your family more likely to be exposed to infectious diseases?” asks Richard Ostfeld in his groundbreaking 2011 book, LYME DISEASE – THE ECOLOGY OF A COMPLEX SYSTEM.(2)
Food webs, as well as disease control, involve tricky balancing acts – not unlike the balancing agility needed for mountain goats to be successful.(3) God has designed many “checks and balances” (a/k/a “dynamic equilibria”) in the world of nature, because God cares about our need for good food and good health.(1)
But what does Lyme disease have to do with being careful to respect the biodiversity that God designed for His creation?
Could it be that humans get bit by Lyme disease-bearing ticks, more frequently than normal, because our properly balanced ecosystem’s “checks and balances” are missing or depleted?
To answer that question, scientifically, it is necessary to learn what animals bear the ticks that carry Lyme disease-producing bacteria. However, the empirical research needed to learn this cannot be done overnight.
For more than two decades, Ostfeld and his colleagues at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in south-central New York’s Dutchess County have live-trapped hundreds of woodland mammals, and painstakingly counted the blacklegged ticks on each that transmit Lyme [disease] to humans. That often involves holding the animals – form mice to possums, squirrels to shrews [or deer, etc.] – in captivity on screens over pans of water for days, until all the ticks on them drop off t be identified. .. Both [“lumpers” and “splitters” who research tick biostatistics] may arrive at valuable insights, but Ostfeld’s book shows how our tendency to find quick and simple solutions to Lyme [disease] after it emerged (in Lyme, CT) in the 1970s did us no favors.(2)
At first, it appeared that swelling deer populations were the main problem, because many blacklegged (Lyme disease-bearing) ticks were misidentified as “deer ticks” – and Lyme disease increased while deer populations increased. But the increases were not statistically correlated, so some other cause-and-effect dynamic was operating.(2)
Next, it was noticed that white-footed mice were carriers of ticks with Lyme disease bacteria. Also, other rodents joined this parasite-host “rogues gallery”: chipmunks and shrews.(2)
But there was more to the problem than just identifying which animals transported (and thus transmitted) the disease-infected arachnids — because the interdependent food-web “checks and balances” (affecting the ticks) were out of kilter.
But it turns out to be far more complicated than how many “good” [i.e., hospitable host for parasitic blacklegged ticks] transmitters of Lyme [disease] are in the woods. Just as significant is how many other species are around that attract a lot of ticks, but eat them when grooming [their fur], or just don’t infect them like [how] the mice [become infected].
Opossums, for example, turn out to be veritable “ecological traps” for the blacklegged tick, consuming thousands of them a week, passing on extremely few that might ever infect a human. The bottom line is that a diverse woodland community of animals contains many such [parasite-consuming] traps for the ticks that otherwise might bite a mouse or chipmunk and become likely transmitters of Lyme [disease].(2)
So we should appreciate the humble opossums (and thank God for them!), as these which range about our forests and woodland edges, more than we have – because God has been quietly promoting human health, indirectly, by providentially employing opossums to gobble up blacklegged ticks — those parasitic pests that all-too-often transmit Lyme disease to humans!
Many, O LORD my God, are Thy wonderful works which Thou hast done, and Thy thoughts which are to us-ward: they cannot be reckoned up [arranged] in order unto Thee; and if I would declare [explain] and speak of them, they are more than can be numbered [recorded/reported]. (Psalm 40:5, verse 6 in Hebrew text versification numbering)
So don’t get “ticked off” if you see a possum visiting your backyard!
><> JJSJ firstname.lastname@example.org
(1) See, accord, Deuteronomy 22:6-7 (Mosaic law promoting avian wildlife conservation) and Deuteronomy 20:19-20 (Mosaic law prohibiting irresponsible deforestation).
(2) Quotations taken from Tom Horton, “Prepare to Be Ticked Off When Messing with Biodiversity”, Chesapeake Bay Journal, 26(9):33 (December 2016), emphasis added, citing Richard S. Ostfeld, LYME DISEASE – THE ECOLOGY OF A COMPLEX SYSTEM (Oxford University Press, 2012). See also, for a thorough introduction to the Virginia Opossum, Amanda Morgan’s “All about Opossums”, Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation, posted at http://www.wildliferescuerehab.com/all-about-opossums.html , citing William J. Krause & Winifred A. Krause, THE OPOSSUM: ITS AMAZING STORY (Columbia, MO: School of Medicine, University of Missouri, 2006), posted at https://mospace.umsystem.edu/xmlui/bitstream/handle/10355/15130/OpossumItsAmazingStory.pdf?sequence=1 .
(3) James J. S. Johnson, “Balancing High Risks: Mountain Climbing and the First Amendment”, Bibleworld Adventures, 6-10-AD2016, posted at https://bibleworldadventures.com/tag/mountain-goat/ .
Opossum on branch (in Iowa forest): Floyd Sanford / http://www.public.coe.edu/~fsandfor/images/Opossum.jpg
Opossum in winter, perching: Cody Pope (via Wikipedia/Creative Commons)
Opossum other carrying babies: Stan Tekiela (via National Wildlife Federation)
Opossum “posing” for camera: Amanda Morgan / Wildlife Rescue & Rehabilitation