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Conservation-Iowa’s Greatest Marsupial – And Our Only One By Kevin Williams, Grundy County Conservation Director

September 19, 2019
Northern-Sun Print
Looking over my ever-increasing folder of past news columns that I have written, I find that I have made opossums the topic of the week a couple of times. I receive a free subscription to the Missouri Conservationist from my brother-in-law, Earl. I like to give him a hard time about his state of residence (and birth) and have for the over 40 years that we have known each other. But no matter how many Missouri jokes I might throw his way, I must admit that Missouri has a lot going for it. They were a leader in the fractional sales tax law that has generated countless millions for Missouri conservation since its inception way back in the 1980s. In 2010, 63% of Iowans voted for a constitutional amendment to create the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund, a permanent and protected funding source dedicated to clean water, productive agricultural soils and thriving wildlife habitat. Eight years later, the Trust Fund sits empty because it requires a state sales tax increase of 3/8ths of a cent for funding. Since 2010, support for funding the Trust has only grown. Recent polling shows that 69% of Iowa voters now support raising the state sales tax 3/8ths of a cent to fund the Trust. It was that constitutional amendment that Iowans approved my a large majority almost 10 years ago now. We call it Iowa Land & Water Legacy but there is no legacy because the Iowa Legislature will not approve the minimal sales tax increase to fund it. Sad. But back to the Missouri Conservationist. The latest issue contained an extremely interesting article on Opossums. It contained some info that I hadn’t shared because I didn’t know it. Here then is my new and improved info on opossums. Some of it you’ve heard and other is new to you, too, I’ll bet. Newborn opossums are about the size of kidney beans — 10 could fit in a teaspoon. The babies crawl from under their mom’s tail and make their way toward her pouch. Although the distance is short, the newborns are naked, blind, deaf, and have just two working legs. For them, the journey is a life-or-death race to find a space in the pouch, and some never cross the finish line. Once inside, each baby clamps down on a nipple — mama opossums usually have 13 arranged in a “U” — and don’t let go for nearly two months. While they nurse on mom’s milk, the babies grow to chipmunk size. The pouch is fur-lined, and it stretches as the babies get bigger. Mom can open the pouch to cool her babies when they’re hot or clamp the pouch shut to keep her babies dry when it’s wet. Having a pouch allows mama opossums to stay mobile. They don’t have to return to a den or nest every day — they carry their den with them. Opossums don’t live long. Three-year-olds are rare, and 4-year-olds are almost unheard of. To make up for their short life spans, opossums don’t waste much time before they start breeding. They find a mate about seven months after they’re born. After a 12-day pregnancy — the shortest of any North American mammal — a mother opossum gives birth to six to 20 babies. Opossums are omnivores with a capital “O.” These living, breathing vacuum cleaners eat anything they can find, including nuts, fruits, insects, worms, frogs, snakes, birds, eggs, rodents — even garbage and dead animals. In an experiment with dogs, cats, and other intelligent animals, opossums scored second in their ability to remember where food is and then locate it. The only animal to outscore them was humans. And this last fact has been making the rounds on the internet: Opossums have an impressive record when it comes to killing ticks. Although they attract about as many ticks as any other Missouri mammal, they’re also fastidious groomers. If they find a tick while grooming, they lick it off and swallow it. Every season, an opossum can kill around 5,000 ticks, possibly helping to control the spread of tickborne diseases where it lives — and where you live.



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