About Ziixxxitria

I am an undergraduate biology major, geography minor, with a focus in ecology. I love to delve into the complexity of life, both academically, professionally and personally.

Why Druidry? – 30 Days of Druidry

I found the ’30 Days of Druidry’ meme while poking through the archives of other druidry blogs. I have been struggling with solidifying my own thoughts about many of these topics, so I thought I would use it as a foundation to guide my process of narrowing down what exactly I believe. They will be on no particular schedule, and I may or may not skip around or alter some of the topics to suit my needs.

For my purposes, I tend to use capital Druid/ry/ism for the actual ancient people and lowercase druid/ry/ism for modern neo-druidry. And since this is mainly for my benefit, it might ramble a lot. I am sharing in order to help anyone who may be lurking the internet thinking about the same questions, and so that some generous visitors might share some of their own wisdom with me.

These are only my thoughts. I am quite non-theistic. While I whole-heartedly respect and support theist pagans, please understand that I am writing about everything in the context of my own beliefs where any god(s) that may exist are irrelevant to my life and how I view the world. I think one of the best things about modern druidry is the general openness and variation in the community, of which I’m a tiny part.

Why Druidry?

Sometimes using the term ‘druid’ makes me uncomfortable. Primarily, I don’t want to culturally appropriate something that’s not mine in a way that is disrespectful, especially to people who are no longer around to defend themselves. There are also arguments that neo-druidry can’t resemble ancient Druidry, so we should find some other umbrella to fall under.

The main thing that we know about the ancient Druids is that we don’t know that much about them. Mostly we have Greek and Roman writing (that could be propaganda or fictitious) and some archeological findings. If Druids had persisted in history in some fashion, likely they would have had to adapt over time. After all, despite many theological tenants that have stayed consistent, the modern Catholic lives differently than an ancient one.

Perhaps Druids would object to my beliefs and to Neo-druidry as a whole, but if they existed now they would have partaken in the development of western philosophy. We might then have better language to use to describe a lot of the ideas that Neo-druidry is trying to fill in. We might be able to join whatever modern religion(s) grew out of those lands, rather than trying to fill in the gaps. And while we do have many words to describe things common in druidry (like animism, reincarnation, nature-loving, and I’m sure those more educated in philosophy know better ones), but we’ve kind of given new meaning to the terms to fill in a space in our collective ideas.

However, as it stands, there are no modern druids descended directly through all the oral traditions of those ancient people. Of course, the “Celts” is a catch-all for a diverse people and culture who were spread throughout many different areas, who likely had slightly different ideas about a lot of important matters. My impression from reading about the Celts (which could be wrong), is that they were adaptive and resourceful.

I also personally think that nothing is inherently sacred. That is, first we are only human and I don’t believe that there is a deity who gives everything meaning, or a being that created humanity with a goal in mind that we are bound to attain. I think that we evolved out of nature, and our propensity for philosophy and labeling is a function of our nature.

Second, I think that as soon as we nail down ideas and forbid anyone to play with them, they lose any usefulness for us. It is one thing to have a definition (like “Humanism” or “Orthodox Christianity”) to point to for purposes of identity and discussion. Yet more important is using those ideas as a basis for new ones, or being able to evaluate how suitable they are, what premises they’re based on, how we can apply them to life, and so on. I would venture that every advanced civilization probably thinks that it’s come up with 90% of what humans will achieve or think, but every few decades we break those limitations beyond what anyone at the time imagined. We point out that fundamental assumptions that were held don’t have to be the absolute truth, or we find new meaning to fill into gaps.

For me, this is one of the best parts of being human, the ability to think and learn and breathe new ideas and share them with everyone.

So when I take the word “druid”, I do it with the best intentions and utmost respect. I use the word because it gives me a jumping off point to use with others. We all have a different idea of druidry, either in history as a curiosity, or some archetype used in gaming or books, or as other practitioners who know it as their own unique practice or something separate developing alongside their own path. That’ s why I think I can use the terms ‘druid’ and ‘druidry’.

But why should I use it to identify myself?

It calls me to find some sort of structure. Perhaps especially because of the controversy over the term, it makes me want to really nail down what it means to myself. If I left it at “non-theistic nature-lover” I might just settle into that and not do so much introspection on what things actually mean to me, instead focusing on just experiencing nature and things. That does have its place, but I feel more fulfilled every time I am able to pin down something that is important to me in words. (Case in point, this multi-year struggle to write this.)

It helps me find other people interested in the same things. It makes me feel good. It’s like naming the type of person that I really want to be, even if it’s a nebulous picture. It forms a mental frame that I can work to fill in with meaning. And, really, the process of developing and feeling the push to keep connecting, reflecting and learning is what is important to me in my spirituality. Part of why I left the ideas I was raised with is that I didn’t feel like I was developing or growing, when thinking through new ideas or revising old ones was actively discouraged and sometimes seen as blasphemous.

So what makes up the parts of druidry for me?

Nothing here is necessarily exclusive to just druidry, but this is how it seems to me from my own experiences.

Retaking Spirituality

Calling towards inner fulfillment, finding meaning without basing it on a holy book or something that already exists. It means reassessing the assumptions about the world that I was raised with, or that exist in society. Some ideas I reaffirm and some I alter or discard. It means that even when reading/discussing within druidry, thinking about it myself rather than just absorbing the words. It’s about thinking and listening instead of just ‘being right’  and ‘knowing’ already what everything means.

Connecting and Living It

I can’t just go to a building once a week and talk about trees, rivers and animals, though that would be fun! Druidry calls me to get out into the dirt, to walk without focusing on a to-do list, to notice what’s around me (even if it’s an urban landscape with squirrels and sparrows). It’s learning about other living beings and non-living systems, reflecting on what I could learn from them, and generally not forgetting all the wonderful (or gross, gritty or scary) things out there as I go through daily life. It’s naming this connection as important in my life, and living up to that. This is still something I struggle with, as I move further into a big city and find it hard to physically explore often with my chronic leg pain.

Being Equal with the World

Humans are not dominant over nature, nor somehow separate from it. I am an animal, a mammal, made of fluids and hair and organs, an amazing legacy of natural selection and history. We are also not lesser than nature, something flawed that needs to return to what is natural (or some non-worldly holiness). Fore sure, humanity as a whole needs to work on our relationship with the environment and other creatures, but we can start by rejecting that there is a dichotomy between ourselves and what’s around us.

It’s recognizing that sacredness doesn’t have to come from something outside of our universe, or something special that humans do better than other things (though the concept of the sacred is human, as far as we can tell). I recognize that others in druidry work with gods or spirits or other things, and that is no less valid, just different from my own views. However, commonly even in working with various gods, I think that as a community we don’t separate ourselves from the natural world.

Personal Development

Always striving to become better, to assess myself and my relationship with the world, to think about ethical living and put it into practice. This is an area of continual struggle and reassessment. Sometimes it’s painful, but it’s always good for me. During the times in my life when I’ve shied away from looking deeply at myself, particularly where I might be lacking, life seems to drain into a more empty, superficial experience. Looking in the mirror may get hard, but it also heals, and over time I feel like I am becoming more of myself, rather than hiding parts of me from each other.

Red-tailed Hawk

A Red-tailed Hawk perched on some wood in Tucson, Arizona -- berichard 2009

A Red-tailed Hawk perched on some wood in Tucson, Arizona — berichard 2009

I see the Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) just about every day. They are a welcome sight while I drive to school in the morning, and when I get lunch later on. They are found through nearly all of North America, though they tolerate Canada mostly in the summer, and some parts of Central America only in winter[1]. National Geographic says that they are also found in the West Indies, and were first studied in Jamaica[2]! This surprised me, because I am used to seeing them in really dry areas with dormant grass. You can see this influence in their specific epithet “jamaicensis”. (A species name is made of the Genus + specific epithet. )

A Red-tailed Hawk perched on a fence post in Clovis, CA -- Kfearnside 2011

A Red-tailed Hawk perched on a fence post in Clovis, CA — Kfearnside 2011

These beautiful birds usually prefer to perch high up (I often see them on telephone poles and streetlights along the freeway) where they can look down onto an open field. In more natural areas, they choose trees instead. Their habitats can be really varied, but are usually quite open so that they can watch for prey below. They range from arid deserts and scrublands, to grasslands and fields, open woodland and human areas like along roads and parks[2]. In Mexico they can apparently be found in the tropical rainforest[3].

Red-tailed Hawks are so named for their rusty red tail feathers. They have several morphs, but the most common (that I see) look mottled brown from above, and pale white from below. Some of the rusty red can be found in their face. Juvenile birds have black horizontal bars on their tail that fade as they age[1].

An immature Red-tailed Hawk at Pillar Point Harbor, CA. -- Jason Crotty 2011

An immature Red-tailed Hawk at Pillar Point Harbor, CA. — Jason Crotty 2011

They can be recognized in the front by their belly band, a section of feathers across their belly that isn’t a strict line as much as a roughly linear area with brown-tipped feathers. The underside of their wings is mostly pale, but there is a dark line along their humerus (shoulder to elbow). Their beak is yellow with a black tip, which matches their feet (the tips in this case are their sharp talons).

Lovely view of a Red-tailed Hawk from below, in Anza Borrego Desert. The dark band on their humerus can be seen clearly.  -- Alan Vernon 2005

Lovely view of a Red-tailed Hawk from below, in Anza Borrego Desert. The dark band on their humerus can be seen clearly. — Alan Vernon 2005

Their two morphs are “Dark-phase” which are entirely brown with the characteristic red tail, and “Rufous-phase” which have a red face and chest, with a brown belly. This can also be called light / dark / rufous morph.

They are one of the largest hawks in North America. They stand between 18-26in (45-65cm) tall, with a wingspan that spreads from 38-48in (1.1-1.3m)[3][4]. This makes them easy to spot in the sky. However, birds are very light compared to similar-sized mammals, and the largest might only weigh 3.5lb (1600g). At the smaller end, they are 1.5lb (690g). Their sexual dimorphisism is apparent in size rather than colors, as females can be 25% larger than males[5].

Red-tailed Hawk soaring. Primary feathers are spread separately to add additional lift.  -- berichard 2009

Red-tailed Hawk soaring. Primary feathers are spread separately to add additional lift. — berichard 2009

Their wings are very broad (front to back) and rounded, and their primaries are often spread apart at the ends to give them extra lift. This shape allows them to soar on updrafts of warm air without expending a lot of energy. Their tail is fairly short and can be spread wide (side-to-side) as well.

They are also capable of ‘hovering’, in a sense. This is not true hovering like a hummingbird can do. However, they can face into a fast wind with their wings held just so, allowing them to stay in one spot in the air from which they can watch for their prey. This seems like quite a feat! Sometimes I can see this behavior on a really windy day, if I am lucky. They have to adjust a little here and there, then suddenly they will dive to the ground. They aren’t as specialized for diving as a falcon, but they are certainly good enough.

Their powerful talons display their role as a carnivore. The hook on the end of their beak also helps them tear into their meal. They mostly eat small mammals, like mice, rabbits and squirrels, but also reptiles and anything else they can find that they think they can kill.

Red-tailed Hawk eating a rabbit near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. -- Rhys A. 2011

Red-tailed Hawk eating a rabbit near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. — Rhys A. 2011

These amazing birds catch their prey by climbing into the air, then swooping toward it to kill with their powerful talons. If they don’t die immediately, they can use their talons or beak as deadly weapons. While I don’t take pleasure in death, it is definitely amazing how they can speed from high in the air and actually hit a small target on the ground. Hopefully, this means a mercifully quick death for their prey.

Red-tailed Hawk diving for prey at Bluff Top Coastal Park, Half Moon Bay, CA. -- Sivaprasad R.L. 2007

Red-tailed Hawk diving for prey at Bluff Top Coastal Park, Half Moon Bay, CA. — Sivaprasad R.L. 2007

Their ability to fly also comes to play in their courtship rituals. The hawks that migrate usually court during late Winter and early Spring, while those that don’t migate (sedentary birds) can court year-round, though mostly in early Spring[6]. Both the male and female will fly high in wide circles. Then the male will dive sharply, then return to her, and repeats this a few times. They might also hold talons and spiral near the ground, before they fly apart. [2][3] If the female is impressed by the male, they will mate. The male climbs onto the female’s back and touches their cloacae together. (The cloaca is a bird’s combination waste and reproductive chamber.)

Eggs collected by Henry David Thoreau in the Natural History Museum, Boston. Those on the right belong to a Red-tailed Hawk. -- Boston Society of Natural History 1930

Eggs collected by Henry David Thoreau in the Natural History Museum, Boston. Those on the right belong to a Red-tailed Hawk. — Boston Society of Natural History 1930

Red-tailed Hawks mate for life once they find their partner[2]. They stay in the same territory and can be seen hunting together[3]. They breed in a variety of locations on the continent[5], but they nest in mostly the same way. The pair will find a high point like a rock ledge or a tree, and make a nest of sticks lined with shredded bark and some fresh vegetation[2][4]. They might re-use a nest that they built in a previous year. This can be up to 6.5ft (2m) high and 3ft (0.9m) across and take a week to build[3]. The female lays 1-5[2][3] or 2-3[4] eggs in their nest. The eggs are white with spots that can be brown or sometimes purple[3][4]. I would guess it would be a dark purple, though I can’t find any pictures.

A peek into the nest of a Red-tailed Hawk with two chicks in Braintree, Massachusetts. -- Thomas O’Neil 2006

A peek into the nest of a Red-tailed Hawk with two chicks in Braintree, Massachusetts. — Thomas O’Neil 2006

The pair will share nesting duties for 4-5 weeks[2]. They will fiercely protect their nest, and chase off anything threatening, including larger birds like eagles and Great Horned Owls (Bubo virginianus). When the chicks hatch, they weigh only around 2oz (57g). They are helpless and bald.[3] The parents hunt and feed the young while they grow larger, their feathers bloom, and they learn to fly. The chicks leave the nest at about 6 weeks old when they are able to catch their own prey[2]. Sometimes the offspring stay up to 6 months after fledging around the nest. They will be able to breed themselves at 1 year old, but usually are successful after 2 years old. [6]

Two Red-tailed hawk chicks still growing feathers in their nest near Tule Lake, CA. A third chick reported, but only beak visible. -- Alan Vernon 2010

Two Red-tailed hawk chicks still growing feathers in their nest near Tule Lake, CA. A third chick reported, but only beak visible. — Alan Vernon 2010

Red-tailed Hawks are considered a partial migrant, which means that some migrate and some don’t. Often the birds in southern Canada will migrate South during the Winter, though experienced hawks may stay while juveniles are the first to leave. Those in most of the US live in more temperate areas and stay put through the whole year. They often take advantage of good weather while they travel, favoring areas with good updrafts while avoiding large bodies of water that require more work to fly over. [6]

These magnificent birds are a great reminder of the power of nature. They look elegant in the air, and have very dangerous appendages. They are protective parents and loyal mates. When given the chance, I love to simply watch them soar. It can bring a sense of peace, as they work with the air currents to get them where they need to go. It is a good reminder that we don’t need to constantly fight against everything to be powerful or masculine or independent.

It can simply be a matter of learning how to adjust to the situations and doing well in them, regardless of how that must be done. It might be as simple as a slight adjustment of a feather or as abrupt as a dive, but it is really about doing what is needed at a given time. You don’t have to respond heavily with shouting and anger, for example, when perhaps taking the time to clarify a misunderstanding will do.

Regardless, the Red-tailed Hawk cares not for our squabbles. They will continue to dominate the skies for many years to come, thanks to their wonderful traits and ability to adapt even to human land uses.

A Red-tailed Hawk in the Chalco Hills Recreation Area, Nebraska -- MONGO 2008

A Red-tailed Hawk in the Chalco Hills Recreation Area, Nebraska — MONGO 2008

1. http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Red-Tailed_Hawk/id

2. http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/birds/red-tailed-hawk/

3. http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Red-Tailed_Hawk/lifehistory

4. http://birds.audubon.org/birds/red-tailed-hawk

5. http://eol.org/pages/1049057/details

6. http://www.hawkmountain.org/raptorpedia/hawks-at-hawk-mountain/hawk-species-at-hawk-mountain/red-tailed-hawk/page.aspx?id=460

Grey Fox

The gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus) is a solitary, nocturnal canine found often in our lovely deciduous forests. They have an extensive range throughout North America (below Canada) and the northern cap of South America in Venezuela and Colombia. They used to be more common in the Eastern United States, but human influence has allowed them to dominate across a greater area until they have spread from coast to coast.

A grey fox in Red Rock Canyon, Nevada -- James Phelps 2004

A grey fox in Red Rock Canyon, Nevada — James Phelps 2004

There are 16 recognized subspecies of gray fox, 7 of which are North of Mexico. The grey fox and channel island fox (Urocyon littoralis) are the only living members of their genus. Genetically, they are similar to the tanuki (Nyctereutes procyonoides) of Asia and the bat-eared fox (Otocyon megalotis) of Africa. The tanuki is the only other kind of canine that can climb well.

The grey fox appeared during the mid-Pliocene, 3.6 million years ago (mya). They likely migrated into Northeastern US in the post Pleistocene epoch during the Medieval Climate Anomaly warming period from  AD 950 to 1250, which was followed by the Little Ice Age from roughly 1350 to 1850. The evolution of the grey fox, and other canines, is fascinating, but it is detailed and could be tedious to read, so I plan to touch on it in another post.

Adult male and female grey foxes -- Apterex 2009

Adult male and female grey foxes — Apterex 2009

Grey foxes live to be around 8-10 years old in the wild. They are around 76-113cm in length, and weigh around 3.6-7kg. Their coloration is red on their face and legs, with a grey dorsum (back) and a ventrum (belly) that can range between white and orange-red. Their tails are around 28-44cm long and exhibit a black dorsal stripe, along with a continuation of the same red and grey. They lack the black stockings of the red fox (Vulpes vulpes). They molt once a year between early Summer and Autumn. Their skull is fairly distinct, as their temporal ridges (upraised lines of bone on the top of the skull) are widely separate, forming a U-shape. They have little sexual dimorphism (visible differences between sexes), other than females being somewhat smaller than the males. They are also unique in having oval, rather than slit, pupils, unlike the genus Vulpes.

A black and white house cat (Felis catus) showing yellow eyeshine -- Una Smith 2008

A black and white house cat (Felis catus) showing yellow eyeshine — Una Smith 2008

They have a tapetum lucidum, which helps them see well during their nocturnal activities. The tapetum lucidum is a highly reflective membrane just behind the retina (the back of the eye with the cells that actually sense light). The tapetum lucidum reflects light back onto the retina, and more light means better vision at night. You might be familiar seeing this in a dog or cat at night, when their eyes seem to glow different colors, like green, yellow or red.

An illustration of The Fox And The Grapes illustrated by Milo Winter, from The AEsop for Children by Project Gutenberg, 1919

An illustration of The Fox And The Grapes illustrated by Milo Winter, from The AEsop for Children by Project Gutenberg, 1919

They are an opportunistic omnivore. They hunt small mammals, like rabbits, small rodents, lizards, and birds, but they also eat a lot of wild plants. They particularly enjoy fruits when they are available, eating acorns, berries, grapes, and much more. In some areas, they can be primarily insectivorous and herbivorous. If they manage to collect more food than it can eat in one sitting, it might store the excess and mark the spot with their urine in order to find it again later. Their ability to climb helps them reach food in the trees that might otherwise only be available to birds and smaller animals. This reminds me of the Aesop’s fable “The Fox and the Grapes”. I will paraphrase it here:

A fox traveling along notices some grapes hanging high from a tree. Quite hungry, he leaps to catch the grapes, but as high as he jumps, he can’t reach them. Huffing, he remarks, “Those grapes look sour anyway.”

The fox in the fable was probably not a grey fox, since they would be quite able to climb up to eat the grapes. I suppose the new moral for this story would go to show that we should use our unique strengths to make the best of a situation, rather than to get irritated and give up.

A pair of grey foxes at a golf course near San Francisquito Creek in Santa Clara County -- Bill Leikam 2011

A pair of grey foxes at a golf course near San Francisquito Creek in Santa Clara County — Bill Leikam 2011

Grey foxes excel at climbing trees thanks to their particular anatomy. In some places, they are known as the “Tree Fox” for this reason. Their claws are strong and curved at the ends, so they can get a good hold into bark. They have been witnessed climbing up a tree at a nearly vertical angle! Their legs are shorter than the red fox, allowing it to climb better. The trade-off is that red foxes are able to run more quickly. They can descend the tree by either walking down it backwards, or running down head-first if the tree is slanted. They are also able to jump between branches. They are so good at climbing that they will often make dens up in a hollow tree, or perhaps in a hole someone else has dug.

A fur bag made of the grey fox -- Kuerschner 2011

A fur bag made of the grey fox — Kuerschner 2011

The grey fox has been hunted historically, and is still harvested today, for their beautiful fur, like many other creatures. Fortunately, this has not affected their populations greatly. They are listed as a species of Least Concern. Apparently, early European settlers (and fox hunters) who came to North America didn’t like that the grey fox preferred to climb up a tree or into a hole instead of leading a long chase like the red fox. The settlers introduced their red foxes into some of their colonies for a better hunting experience.

A red fox snarling at a grey fox on the San Joaquin National Wildlife Refuge, CA -- USFWS Pacific Soutwest Region 2013

A red fox snarling at a grey fox on the San Joaquin National Wildlife Refuge, CA — USFWS Pacific Soutwest Region 2013

This introduction has led to red foxes being common in the eastern United States. At first, the two species were found in different areas, as the red fox preferred boreal forests (colder, more conifers like pine trees) and the grey fox was found in deciduous forests (warmer, trees shed their leaves in the Fall). The red fox has spread out throughout the US, but the grey fox apparently still dominates in areas where they overlap. Notably, the grey fox can be found in a remarkable range of habitats from the deciduous forests, the open desert or rocky canyons of Arizona, even to grasslands and, of course, urban areas.

A grey fox in North Carolina. She has four kits under the wooden paneling behind her. -- Dcrjsr 2010

A grey fox in North Carolina. She has four kits under the wooden paneling behind her. — Dcrjsr 2010

Grey foxes have an annual breeding season that varies depending on where they are found. Roughly, this can be between late Winter and early Spring. They form a monogamous pair. The female is pregnant for about seven and a half weeks. Their litter can be between one to seven kits, who are able to hunt along with their parents at three months old. At four months old, the kits get their adult teeth and are able to find their own food. However, the family stays together until Autumn. The kits learn from their parents and play with each other to practice the skills they will need as an adult. In Autumn, the kits become sexually mature adults and leave to find their own territories and families. The offspring might still meet their parents, if they live close enough, but they no longer have extensive interactions.

Grey fox kit at the Baylands -- Bill Leikam 2011

Grey fox kit at the Baylands — Bill Leikam 2011

As mentioned earlier, the grey fox has spread through a large area, partially due to their adaptability to humans in their habitat. From what I gather, it seems that both the grey and red fox (Vulpes vulpes) are able to adapt to living around people. They have a fairly flexible diet, one that can include small pets like chickens or rabbits, but is more likely to be rodents in your yard, or any fruit available, like grapes or strawberries. They are said to avoid garden vegetables and adult cats (who could be a fierce rival in a fight). They rarely carry rabies, and are overall rather benign as far as wild guests go. If you have a fox living near you, please leave it alone, and be glad for the view you get of a natural animal. If you truly do not wish to see them again, this link has many suggestions for scaring them away humanely.

A grey fox in captivity at the Lindsay Wildlife Museum in Walnut Creek, CA. -- Milonica 2012

A grey fox in captivity at the Lindsay Wildlife Museum in Walnut Creek, CA. — Milonica 2012

The grey fox seems to be a beautiful and resourceful creature. Their general nocturnal, shy nature speaks of caution, though sometimes they can be more bold when forced to tolerate humans in close proximity. Often, I hear of foxes being associated with mischief, but I do not really see that here. They seem to represent adaptability and a strength that doesn’t need to be boasted of. They are flexible in their lifestyle, and also stay their course of survival despite the challenges of human encroachment into once-wild lands. It is rather inspiring, and they carry a regal image in my mind. I definitely respect the grey fox.

A grey fox resting in the rocks -- Gary Stolz, USFWS 2013

A grey fox resting in the rocks — Gary Stolz, USFWS 2013

The First Step — Virginia Opossum

One the day that I began my research, I decided to find a list of native Californian animals and go in order. First on the list was the Virginia opossum. I thought, I know about opossums already. They’re very common, the only North American marsupial, they can play dead, and that’s the sum of it. Well, just for completion, I thought I should go ahead and read. I’m very glad I did. It turns out they are much more impressive than I gave them credit for.

Virginia Opossum in winter coat; Cody Pope 2007

Virginia Opossum in winter coat; Cody Pope 2007

General Description

The Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana) is found extensively across Central and North America. They are mainly found in deciduous woodlands, but have also been sighted in prairies, marshes, and farmlands. In more arid places like Texas, they often stick to riparian woodland (riparian means along the river). They aren’t great burrowers, so they tend to use dens from other animals, or natural shelters like hollow logs.

They first evolved in South America, but were one of many species to head North during the Great American Interchange 3mya (million years ago). This was the time when the isthmus of Panama was formed (which we later had to dig through to create the Panama Canal). Originally, the opossum was found mainly in the South-eastern parts of the United States, but it was introduced to the west coast during the Great Depression. Considering the great variety of recipes, and the needs of the time, it is generally thought that it was brought as a food source.

Now then, I already knew what they look like and how big they are, but I suppose for the sake of the exercise, I should read about that, too. Turns out, this little marsupial was going to be a lesson on hubris for me. They range from around 13-37 inches (35-94cm) long, and run from 11oz – 14lb (including both male and female measurements). That is quite a difference! I learned that they have one of the greatest ranges in size in the world for a mammal. They are much larger in the Northern areas of North America, and are much smaller in the tropics.

Virginia opossum in Western Canada --(Drcyrus 2007)

Virginia opossum in Western Canada — (Drcyrus 2007)

I can only assume this has to do with the temperature, as a larger body allows an animal to stay warmer more easily. However, don’t take my word on that as a fact (just as a hypothesis). This relates to Bergmann’s rule which essentially states that animals are larger in colder environments, and smaller in warmer areas. This can apply between different species in a genus, but also between different populations of the same species, like with this opossum. The reasoning relies on what is called the surface area to volume ratio.

When an endotherm (“warm-blooded” animal) produces its body heat, it is simultaneously losing heat to the surrounding air when it is cold outside. When a given mass of the animal produces heat, it is losing it through the area of its skin (surface area) that is touching the air. So when it’s cold, an animal wants more mass and less surface area.

This adorable young opossum will have a harder time keeping warm than an adult! -- (Liam Wolff 2011)

This adorable young opossum will have a harder time keeping warm than an adult! — (Liam Wolff 2011)

For those of you that would like to see some numbers, let’s talk about a theoretical endothermic cube creature. If you have a 1m (meter) cube, their surface area is 6m2, whereas a 2m cube has a surface area of 24m2. The SA:V ratio of the 1m cube is 6m-1, while the 2m cube is 3m-1. Basically, this means that when an animal is producing heat, a smaller body will have to work harder to keep warm, because they are losing heat faster.

Regardless of why, it is pretty impressive that the opossum adapted so well to such a broad range of climates. It is continuing to expand northward into Canada. This makes it rather surprising to learn about its small brain for its body size. While not terribly smart, they do have more tricks up their fuzzy sleeves.

Virginia opossum in a tree in northeastern Ohio --(2008)

Virginia opossum in a tree in northeastern Ohio –(2008)

Physiology

They have long, hairless prehensile tails. This is mostly useful for grabbing onto branches or move a small object. They can hang from their tails, but their tails aren’t strong enough to make it the primary purpose. Mainly, it seems their tails and opposable thumbs help them climb around better. Most of the opossums I have seen do not seem very graceful, but they are very prevalent despite that. I have often spotted them scurrying along the top of a wall or fence around a suburban area.

Virginia Opossum skull -- (Dawson 2006)

Virginia Opossum skull — (Dawson 2006)

They also have 50 teeth, as you can see, which they use to eat just about anything. Their dental formula is 5.1.3.4/4.1.3.4. A dental formula lists each kind of teeth on the upper and lower jaws in the order of incisors, canines, pre-molars and molars. So this opossum has 5 incisors, 1 canine, 3 pre-molars and 4 molars on the upper jaw. This is a ton of teeth compared to most other mammals. (Imagine the dental bills!)

They will eat a variety of plants, smaller animals, fruits, insects, and even carrion. In urban areas, they can also be found eating garbage or pet food. This flexibility in their diet probably helps a great deal in allowing them to survive not only in a wide range of climates, but also in and around human settlements.

Their teeth reflect this omnivorous diet. They have a mixture of good flesh-piercing canines and premolars, incisors suitable for cutting vegetation, and tricuspid molars great for grinding up everything. Their skull also features a large sagittal crest (rising vertically from the top of the skull, from behind the eyes to the back). This is an area where jaw muscles attach. Because the crest is so prominent, you know that the opossum does a lot of chewing.

Opossum tracks (larger) and vole tracks (smaller) -- (Michael Lensi 2003)

Opossum tracks (larger) and vole tracks (smaller) — (Michael Lensi 2003)

Virginia opossums have opposable thumbs on their hind legs. I had no idea that any other animal had opposable thumbs, so I think this is pretty cool. Some cursory searching shows that there are many animals that have opposable thumbs, but it is still fairly rare relative to the number of animals that exist.

When I saw this picture, I was struck by how much the left print resembles a human handprint. It definitely makes me feel more connected to them in a visceral way. Hands are a very important feature that we use all the time, not just for tools, but also for socializing. We shake hands, high five, flip the bird, thumbs up/down, salute, and so on. It is a good reminder that humans are not alien from the rest of the animal kingdom. However, it is also good to remember that we are related to things that don’t have features similar to ours, like jellyfish and bacteria.

As far as behavior goes, the virginia opossum is very nocturnal and mostly solitary. They maintain a home range (the area that they regularly live in), but can allow them to overlap when conditions are good. That is, they have enough food and other resources that can support them in close proximity.

Virginia Opossum carrying her young -- (Specialjake 2012)

Virginia Opossum carrying her young — (Specialjake 2012)

Reproduction

They have two breeding seasons each year: one from January-February and another from June-July. After courtship and mating, they return to being solitary. The female will bear 5-21 young, each only weighing about 3 grams. They are pink, hairless and can only manage to crawl into their mother’s pouch and nurse. They will stay there for 7 weeks, until they are finally ready to detach. The reported mortality rate for young opossums is very high, especially since there are only 13 teats available to nurse from, so any more that are born cannot be fed. At least, that is what the literature says. This video shows a mother carrying 15 young, so perhaps when conditions are good, she might be able to feed more.

It has been surprisingly difficult to find information on the interaction between parent and young after they are done nursing. Apparently this is not an interesting topic. However, I can report with a reasonable guess that the young spend some time riding on their mother’s back, and perhaps also following her on foot when they are larger. They likely observe what she eats and other behaviors that they need to learn to be successful adults, until they are old enough to leave.

This video, by what might be a nature group from Missouri, states that the young leave the mother at around 3.5 months old. It also shows an opossum carrying some leaves in her tail in order to make a nest.

Even though opossums have a lot of young, and only stay with them for a few months, it is apparent that they do care about their offspring. They carry them in a pouch, then on their back. It makes me think that a human parent trying to emulate the opossum, might care a great deal for their children while they are young, but allow them to transition into acting like an independent adult when the time is right. They might encourage their child’s individual pursuits, supporting them, then letting them blossom into adulthood without trying to hold on too much, to the point where their now-adult child feels smothered.

Irritated opossum -- (PiccoloNamek 2006)

Irritated opossum — (PiccoloNamek 2006)

Defenses

Opossums are not very exciting when it comes to interacting with other species, at least not in a traditional way. Their mouths full of pointy teeth look rather intimidating, but they don’t tend to use them in fights where they are out-matched. Instead, they usually play dead.

This seems to be an involuntary reaction in response to extreme fear. Incredibly, when under enough stress, they can enter a full coma for up to four hours! This is stunning, not just in the extent at which they can hold the ruse of being dead, but that after falling into a coma they can emerge and return to normal life. In humans, a coma is a pretty extreme event that needs a lot of recovery time.

Watching the opossum might be a good way to learn how to avoid confrontation at times when it isn’t productive. For example, if you find yourself having trouble reigning in your anger, particularly against friends or family, it might be good to try to be more like the opossum and avoid the confrontation. That way, your relationships can survive, rather than potentially burning bridges with those who care about you.

Obviously, though, there are many ways to deal with different situations, and I don’t want to advise anyone to do anything. I am merely thinking about ways that a hypothetical situation might arise.

The opossum also has other defenses that aren’t so melodramatic. They happen to be highly resistant to snake venom, a fact which I found both surprising and impressive! They also resist rabies, likely because they have a lower body temperature than other placental mammals (a lower body temperature is common among marsupials).

They also successfully kill most of the ticks that parasitize them, which helps them avoid the Lyme disease that ticks can carry. In general, they don’t transmit many diseases to humans, unlike other animals common in urban environments, like rats.

It seems like the North American opossum is much tougher than I first gave them credit for. Despite this, they don’t have very long lifespans. In the wild, they generally live for about 2 years, and at most for 4 in captivity.

They rapidly decline in old age. Their life span is short, even compared to other marsupials–who don’t tend to live as long as placental mammals–and compared to animals of a similar size.

The proposed explanation for this is based on their general lack of defenses to predation. If playing dead doesn’t work, then they’re stuck. This leads to the idea that since they likely won’t live very long anyway, they had no push for evolving the biochemical means to live longer. Old age generally involves organs starting to fail, without the body keeping up the process of repairing them as they do when the body is younger. It costs a lot of energy to resist the effects of aging, after all.

This idea is supported by a population of opossums that has been isolated for a few thousand years on the small Sapelo Island off the coast of Georgia. There are no natural predators there. The opossums live up to 1-2 years longer there. It seems that since they are less likely to be eaten, those opossums that evolved the ability to resist aging for longer are actually relevant to the forces of natural selection.

Final Perspectives

Learning about the opossum this week has been very illuminating. Personally, it taught me not to underestimate any creature, no matter how plain it sounds or how much I think I know about them.

Opossums seem to embody a basic perspective on life: live well while you can. They show that it’s okay to be tough, but it can also be okay to be pacifistic. They are fine with solitude, but invest in those close to them.

What is your perspective? I would love to hear from you!