Thursday, June 13, 2013

Rodents of Unusual Size and the (fire) Swamp

The "science"-related post I was working on needs a bit more time to mature, so I thought I would discuss my recent encounters with ROUS's. 

 The famed Fire Swamp scene from The Princess Bride

I am a bit of a sadist. As such, one of my favorite early morning distractions is to identify roadkill as I ride my bike to school. This is actually more challenging than you would think - the cars drive so fast on this road that the animals actually explode, and combined with the plethora of scavengers, carcass identification has to be made on just a joint or two. Or the smell. Rabbits definitely smell different to squirrels. Courtesy of my time at the Boston Area Climate Experiment, I can identify voles a mile off. I am still working on distinguishing between toad, frog, slug and earthworm smell.

But about a month ago, a fine piece of roadkill caught my attention. It was pretty fresh and the head was pretty intact. And it was quite possibly the scariest thing I have ever seen. Because when I looked on Wikipedia's mammals of Massachusetts page to reassure myself it wasn't in fact a rodent of unusual size, and that the pioneer valley is in fact a regular swamp, and not a Fire Swamp, my creature wasn't there. Nope. It was, in fact, a rodent of unusual size.

I managed to convince myself that it was some mutant creature, and since the mutation rate of most animals is very low, that there probably wouldn't be another one. Except earlier this week, there was. And it was alive and on the bike path less than four feet away from me. My bike has issues when squirrels happen to get tangled in my wheels - hitting a hissing, snarling, four-foot long rodent-kimodo dragon hybrid is another story. So luckily it waddled off, but I could see it in its eyes that it and/or its probably abundant progeny would be after me. My hopes of the roadkill being a rare mutant went out the window.

So I tried looking up this creature, once again, online. Surely someone must have seen a similarly giant rodent. But no - or if they had, they hadn't lived to tell the tail. And, as I rode home in the pitch black at the end of a very long day, that beast was still on the loose, waiting for me.

But the next morning, there was the freshest roadkill imaginable on the road. It was a Virginia opossum. Lying there, the blood trickling from its mouth, it was still the ugliest thing I have ever seen, but all of a sudden seemed only two feet long, and not as scraggly as before. 

Way handsomer in photos than in real life (

So, without spending lots of money to learn about psychology and/or buying any self-help magazines or time with a counsellor, here are the steps of fear: 1. something scary appears and you blow it out of proportion because it is 5am and you have nothing better to think about. This is how the Loch Ness monster was born. 2. you are convinced that it will get you (you impose what you wish to happen to it (ie for it to be eaten) as a wish the scary thing wants of you). 3. you see the scary thing again, contextualize it, and it seems less scary. This is desensitization. This is also why we need solid research and repeated observations against a larger body of evidence before we draw conclusions. Science. 

So, how about some fun facts about opossums:

Opossums are not rodents, but rather marsupials, like kangaroos. This means that their babies are born tiny (about a tenth of a gram) and have to crawl into their mother's pouch to finish gestation. This also means that their closest relatives live in the southern hemisphere - when Pangea (the last super continent) broke up, their ancestors in the northern hemisphere died out, and they evolved somewhat in isolation over the next millions of years. Opossums came from south and central America when South America met North America about three million years ago (and before the Panama Canal separated the two again), but didn't really explode and spread as far north as they exist now until Europeans colonized. Virginia opossums, the most successful and widespread kind of opossum, have relatively sparse fur and therefore pretty terrible when it comes to the cold, but the arrival of settlers and their warm houses has enabled them to spread into southern Canada. These northern opossums have denser fur and much larger than their southern tropical relatives. 

Imagine if you had tens of these bursting out your belly. Best incentive ever for a tummy tuck.

Despite the fact that opossums are famous for playing 'possum (dead), this is actually a pretty rare behaviour - they are more likely to hiss, tail lash, climb, swim, or run at a whopping speed of up to 7 km/hr. This antisocial behaviour means that they don't really hang out with other opossums except for mating (for which they only get one year in before they die, usually). This is fortunate because they are unlikely to form a gang and chase me down the street. 

Opossums are also supposed to be nocturnal, which, since I thought I was going to school during the daytime, apparently means I need to go later. They are omnivores, and eat pretty much anything, by all accounts. Like the chickens which were going beserk on my way to school this morning. Opossums do have predators, but maybe not as much in New England as in the south, where 'possum makes a tasty pie (I think I like this possum pie better). They are resistant to the venom of quite a lot of snakes, but may be consumed by brave domestic dogs, owls, coyotes, and racoons (none of which I would like to see on my bike path either, thank you very much).
including owls, domestic dogs, coyotes, red foxes, raccoons, bobcats and large snakes, among others. They may also be hunted or trapped by humans. Virginia opossums are immune to the venom of a variety of snakes from Family Viperidae including eastern and western diamondback rattlesnakes, copperheads, cottonmouth moccasins and Korean mamusi. This species may have a better chance of survival with

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