A Rat-Tailed Marsupial That Can Teach Us About Thinking Globally and Acting Locally

Earth Day (April 22) will be celebrated worldwide by a dedicated minority of environmentalists, as it is every year.

Published April 18, 2014 5:00 AM
4 min read


opossum-thumEarth Day (April 22) will be celebrated worldwide by a dedicated minority of environmentalists, as it is every year.

By Bill Lawyer   

LorazEarth Day (April 22) will be celebrated worldwide by a dedicated minority of environmentalists, as it is every year. Speeches will be made, symbolic actions will be taken, and pledges to do better will be promised.  

On the global level, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported this month that “atmospheric carbon dioxide levels [are] rising almost twice as fast in the first decade of this century as they did in the last decodes of the 20th century.”  
On the local level however, for the most part, life will go on, with many people wanting “more, bigger, and faster.”  

Many people still won’t see any connection between clearing forests for lumber and houses being destroyed by mudslides. And they won’t see the connection between ever-increasing burning of fossil fuel and climate change.

Throughout Westchester County the housing boom is slowly but surely diminishing the amount of pervious surfaces and open space for people and wildlife to enjoy. We think: “What’s one more McMansion? We’ve still got plenty of outdoor places to play and relax.” Over 400 acres of land have been covered by impervious surfaces in the Blind Brook watershed since 2002.  

opossum-babiesSeveral generations of children have grown up listening to Dr. Seuss’s “The Lorax.” It was even made into a movie. And yet “Once-lers” are “biggering” the houses of Rye, at an ever-more rapid rate.  

I thought about these things recently while walking my dog in the early morning. I noticed a large Kobelco SK250lc backhoe excavator parked in the driveway of a charming old home on Oakwood Avenue. The house is scheduled to be torn down – fairly soon, no doubt. Will its replacement be bigger? Hmmm…

As I continued on to Elmwood Avenue, I saw something more surprising, and enjoyable – a large opossum, sniffing around a flowerbed.  

According to wildlife biologists, opossums are pretty common (and commonly known as ‘possums’) here in the Northeast.  But they are generally nocturnal. Even though I’m out walking nearly every day in the early morning and again in the evening, this is the first time I’d seen one alive in quite a while. Sadly, they tend to be run over by cars, particularly on Playland Parkway.  

Ready-for-teardownPossums are marsupials, which as most of us learned in high school biology, means that their young are born very early, in a two-week gestation period.  The average litter of 8-9 babies then make their way to their mother’s “marsupium” – a pouch where 13 teats are located.

After spotting the possum, I stood still and watched it for a minute or so.  It went about its rooting in the garden, but as soon as I started walking slowly toward it, it turned around and sauntered its way down the hill toward the Nursery Field.  

What fascinates me about possums is how this one species is a metaphor of the entire history of life on earth.  Along with other marsupial animals, possums developed way back when all the earth’s continents were joined together.  As the earth’s tectonic plates drifted apart, the marsupials ended up being relegated to South America and Australia/New Zealand.  

But then, about 3 million years ago, the water levels dropped, causing a “land bridge”  — the Isthmus of Panama — to provide an opportunity for wildlife to move northward.  

When humans arrived in the Americas they managed to kill off most of the western hemisphere marsupials, but not the possums.  

Because of their omnivorous diet, prehensile tail, and ability to fit into just about any ecosystem, there are still a lot of them. In fact, their numbers are expanding both east of the Rockies and along the west coast, where they were introduced in the 1930s.  

The first European account of possums was by Virginia explorer John Smith, who wrote in 1608: “An Opassom hath an head like a Swine, and a taile like a Rat, and is of the bignes of a Cat. Under her belly she hath a bagge, wherein she lodgeth, carrieth, and sucketh her young.”
I’m not sure what lesson we can learn from the possum’s adaptation of “playing possum” – i.e. pretending to be dead.  When threatened, not only does the animal go into a coma, but it also emits a putrid green substance, which apparently repels would-be predators – sort of like a skunk’s spray.  They can also escape some predators by climbing trees.  

Despite their flexible life-styles, possums, like most forms of wildlife, are being pressured by the conversion of open space into subdivisions and roads.  And the use of pesticides doesn’t help.   

The lesson I take from the possum is that life on earth has evolved and blessed us with an amazing diversity of species to enjoy and learn from. We can’t take this for granted, and we can’t think that somebody else needs to change his/her way of life.  
To paraphrase a saying of Mahatma Gandhi, we need to be the change we seek to make in the world — starting in our own backyard.




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