Socially distancing is not a new concept, especially when it comes to humans and wildlife. Ask a couple of our guys at the Delaware Soil and Water Conservation District and they will freely admit that they socially distance (run screaming) from any snake, no matter its size or location! Obviously, you would be hard-pressed to find a person who wants to get up close and personal with a wild skunk, but what about some of the other species that call Ohio home? Here are three that make the list of unloved.
Snakes are likely one of the more vilified creatures in the wildlife world, and the fear of snakes is called ophidiophobia. Snakes have a reputation of being slimy and sneaky, but they are neither. Snakes are reptiles and are cold-blooded, so they are cool and dry to the touch. They appear sneaky but that is usually because they startle us when they move quickly across the ground, through the water, and along tree branches. The eastern gartersnake is probably the snake with which most of us are familiar with as it is found in nearly every county in Ohio and is active during the day.
Early this summer, I was amazed to discover two gartersnakes mating amongst the sedum in my flower bed. Gartersnakes are not dangerous to humans, and are in fact beneficial, because they feed on leeches, slugs, insects, small rodents, and grasshoppers. According to the Ohio Division of Wildlife, Ohio has three venomous snakes: eastern copperhead, massasauga, and timber rattlesnake. While many people would include snakes in the scary and gross category, it is important to recognize they control many pests and that more people die from lightning than from snakebites.
A fascinating resource is the Ohio History Connection which features lots of colorful photos at www.ohiohistory.org/learn/collections/natural-history/natural-history-blog/april-2020/snakes-of-ohio.
Another animal that is very underappreciated is the Virginia opossum. Even though it has Virginia in its name, it is a common nocturnal animal found throughout the eastern and midwestern United States and is our only marsupial or pouched animal. When aggravated, opossums can hiss, growl, drool, or snap their teeth, and if they can’t make a quick getaway, they may open their mouths very wide hoping their 50 teeth will strike fear into whomever is bothering them. They also can go into an inactive, deathlike state, lying motionless (playing possum) and may even release a musky odor. When idle, opossums groom themselves meticulously, much like a house cat. Opossums are opportunists and will eat almost anything, including worms, rodents, insects, fruit, grain, and carrion (dead animals). Many find the opossum has a face that “only a mother could love,” and combined with its odd hairless ears, toes, and tail, relegate it to the list of ugly and disgusting creatures. But, don’t be too hasty to join those people.
Scientists have established that one opossum can eat 5,000 ticks a season! Sadly, opossums rarely live longer than a year, with their most significant cause of death coming from a car or truck hitting them as they feed on carcasses along the road in the dark.
Like snakes, spiders get a bad rap and like snakes, spiders help us by controlling many undesirables. As summer winds down, you will start to notice the black and yellow garden spider, often found in gardens and fields. These spiders would be considered large by those who are arachnophobes (afraid of spiders), with females ranging just over an inch in size and males much smaller. This spider is an orb weaver, meaning its web is circular, and webs can be as large as two feet in diameter. It is carnivorous, trapping aphids, flies, beetles, grasshoppers, mud daubers, and mosquitoes just to name a few of its typical meals. These spiders prefer sunny locations with limited wind for their webs.
Once they find a suitable location, they will stay unless the web is frequently disturbed or they are unable to find enough prey. This spider, also known as the black-and-yellow Argiope (rhymes with calliope) and golden web weaver, produces venom that is harmless to humans, but immobilizes the prey caught in its web.
To identify this helpful spider, visit nature.mdc.mo.gov/discover-nature/field-guide/black-and-yellow-garden-spider. I appreciate all the work these spiders do for me in my vegetable patch, so I am happy to work around their beautiful webs.
When it comes to the list of unloved wildlife, it pays to keep in mind that beauty is only skin deep. The creepy and scary critters perform jobs that aren’t always obvious to us, so practice your social distancing, appreciating, and supporting them from afar.
Bonnie Dailey is deputy director of the Delaware Soil & Water Conservation District. For information, go to https://soilandwater.co.delaware.oh.us/.