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Northern Movement of Virginia opossum into Northern NY

This project was brainstormed during a Wildlife Club meeting at SUNY Plattsburgh. Several students and I were reading about the opossum and wondered why we had seen so many where we grew up (MA, southern NY, St. Lawrence County NY) but not in Clinton County, NY where the college is located. I ran upstairs and grabbed the Whitaker and Hamilton field guide and brought it down to observe their distribution in the US. What we found was an absence from northern NY. We GOT EXCITED and saw this as a great opportunity to dive into the literature about these interesting marsupial mammals.
Pictured above: Amanda Lafty with an opossum at a wildlife rehab center in PA

What we learned from the literature, in particular research by Leann Kanda (Ithaca College) and Todd Fuller (UMass Amherst), was that these animals appear to be moving northward using urban centers as heat islands and a source of constant food (e.g., garbage, bird feeders, etc.). The opossum does not hibernate and has a naked tail and ears, so how on earth is it able to survive in our area?

Recently, our SUNY Plattsburgh colleagues who live on the VT side of Lake Champlain (Dr. Don Slish and Dr. Gerhardt Gruendling), have reported seeing roadkill and live opossum in Burlington, as well as along the sandbar causeway. They have been seen in the Lake Champlain Islands, but are they in upstate NY yet? Well we predicted that they would be rare in northern NY because we are not really close to any urban center to the south. We also felt that if they were making their way northward, it might be because of warming temperatures and likely their path would be along the Champlain Valley corridor, as it is more moderate in temperature.

As a result, we set out on this collaboration with Dr. Curt Gervich, who trained Leslie Appling up on survey methods and got her certified to administer a survey at the college. We then drafted a list of potential foot soldiers who might observe these animals on a daily basis during their workday (e.g., postal carriers, school and county bus drivers, Fed Ex employees, highway dept. workers, and even hunters who might observe live opossum in the woods) and mailed surveys out this summer!
...and we already have some great survey responses in our opossum collection box picture with
Dr. Curt Gervich!

The last piece of the puzzle required us to dig into the long-term weather station data for the area. For this, we required the expertise of Dr. Ed Romanowicz, the hydrologist on campus. He assisted Leslie in downloading and querying data from our survey region:

Leslie will be back this summer to do some more analysis and input survey data. She is pictured below with her poster at the SUNY Plattsburgh Sigma Xi poster conference this spring 2012.
The same week Leslie presented DEC biologist Joe Racette found this roadkill opossum in Clintonville, NY on
US Rte 9. Good timing!
Stay tuned for more on this research in progress...