Featured

Bobcats Eat Venomous Snakes

Venomous snakes aren’t bad or evil. Like all other animals, they have an important role to play in our ecosystem. Among other things, snakes help to control populations of rats and mice. This in turn helps reduce the incidence of diseases these rodents might carry.

Nevertheless, you probably don’t want venomous snakes living too close to your house. While fatal bites are extremely rare, they do happen occasionally. This is one of the many reasons that bobcats can be useful neighbors to have around!

Bobcats are some of nature’s most fearless predators, making them one of the few native creatures bold enough to kill and eat venomous snakes. And bobcats are even less likely than venomous snakes to harm humans. No human has ever died of a bobcat attack! Letting your bobcat neighbor stick around is one of many ways you can keep your family (and your neighborhood ecosystem) safe and healthy for all.

Don’t Fear Owls

It’s funny how, every few years, a different animal will become the target of panic and fear, and people will become convinced that the species is a hazard that needs to be killed or relocated. For the last few years, owls have been a surprising focus of hate and fear.

As with most other panics about wildlife, fear of owls is a result of a series of misunderstandings, urban myths, and exaggerations. Like all other birds and mammals, owls are dedicated parents who defend their young and their nests from predators. When a human— which, to an owl, is a large predator— comes too close, the owl will naturally protect its family. This isn’t malicious on the owl’s part. It’s simply parental instinct.

These “attacks” on humans are rare. Because they’re so rare, they tend to make headlines and to become the subject of viral videos and social media posts. The rapid spread of information in today’s world can make it seem like a rare incident is commonplace, and that can feed into irrational fears.

When an owl does make contact with a person, it’s unlikely to result in serious injuries. Most owls will only swoop toward a human— not making contact at all, or barely grazing them— as a bluff attack to chase them away. Only if the bluff is disregarded will the owl generally use its talons.

Scrapes from an owl’s talons might be uncomfortable and could even require medical attention as a precaution, but they’re not deadly. In all of recorder history, no human has ever been killed by an owl. (Yes, we’ve seen The Staircase, and no, there was no evidence whatsoever that an owl was involved.) The absolute worst thing that might happen would be a trip to urgent care to get the injuries cleaned up.

You may be thinking that this worst-case scenario still sounds terrifying, but please keep this risk in perspective. Every year, millions of people are injured— often far more seriously— by broken glass bottles, airbags, and hot ovens, but no one lives in fear of these things or tries to rid the world of them. Tame house pets are much more likely to scratch than an owl, possibly resulting in a need for medical care, yet many people choose to live with them anyway.

Owls of all species are important to our ecosystem, reliably exterminating rats and mice, keeping our neighborhoods free of parasites and disease. It would be a shame to harass, remove, or kill them because of irrational fear. Please learn to coexist!

Botflies: Why Lumpy Squirrels Don’t Need Help

Rehabbers get a lot of calls about lumpy squirrels, especially in summer! There are two common causes of lumps on squirrels: squirrelpox, a viral infection we’ll discuss in a separate post, and botflies, which are insects that develop in animals’ skin in the larval stage. When people find lumpy squirrels, they almost always feel that they need to capture the squirrel for treatment, or worse, they’ll rush to killing the critter out of the idea that they’re “ending its suffering.” Please don’t do either of those things!

Botflies (also called warbles, wolfworms, or heelflies) may give you the heebie-jeebies, but they’re native insects, just like bumblebees and monarchs. They play an important role in our ecosystem, and we never kill native animals— no matter how small or unimportant they may seem— just because their life cycle is uncomfortable to see.

The species of botfly that typically affects North American squirrels is a small, unassuming little bug that resembles a bee (but doesn’t sting). A mother botfly lays her eggs in areas frequented by rodents, like tree hollows and brush piles. When the a squirrel bumps into the eggs, they cling to the fur and hatch, and the baby botfly grows under the squirrel’s skin. It may be a yucky-looking process, but it’s not really as bad for the squirrel as it seems. The larvae will grow just under the squirrel’s skin until maturity, then will fly away, leaving a tiny hole in the skin that heals quickly.

An otherwise-healthy squirrel will do just fine even with many botfly larvae growing under the skin. Parasites like fleas, roundworms, and botflies are just part of life for wild animals, and squirrels and their native botflies have coexisted for millions of years without issue. The stress of capturing a squirrel for treatment would be much greater than the risk of the botflies simply running their course, which is usually completed by late fall.

There’s no need to panic about botflies passing to you or your pets. Botflies tend to be species-specific and it’s very rare for them to grow in the skin of any animal besides their preferred host. If you live in North America, you’ve probably already encountered squirrel botfly eggs many times while climbing trees as a kid or doing yard work as an adult, and of course there was no harm done. You don’t have to kill or relocate squirrels, or use pesticides in your yard, to keep yourself safe.

Please let nature be nature, even when it looks icky! Both squirrels and native insects deserve to live in peace.

Botflies: Why Lumpy Squirrels Don’t Need Help

Rehabbers get a lot of calls about lumpy squirrels, especially in summer! There are two common causes of lumps on squirrels: squirrelpox, a viral infection we’ll discuss in a separate post, and botflies, which are insects that develop in animals’ skin in the larval stage. When people find lumpy squirrels, they almost always feel that they need to capture the squirrel for treatment, or worse, they’ll rush to killing the critter out of the idea that they’re “ending its suffering.” Please don’t do either of those things!

Botflies (also called warbles, wolfworms, or heelflies) may give you the heebie-jeebies, but they’re native insects, just like bumblebees and monarchs. They play an important role in our ecosystem, and we never kill native animals— no matter how small or unimportant they may seem— just because their life cycle is uncomfortable to see.

The species of botfly that typically affects North American squirrels is a small, unassuming little bug that resembles a bee (but doesn’t sting). A mother botfly lays her eggs in areas frequented by rodents, like tree hollows and brush piles. When the a squirrel bumps into the eggs, they cling to the fur and hatch, and the baby botfly grows under the squirrel’s skin. It may be a yucky-looking process, but it’s not really as bad for the squirrel as it seems. The larvae will grow just under the squirrel’s skin until maturity, then will fly away, leaving a tiny hole in the skin that heals quickly.

An otherwise-healthy squirrel will do just fine even with many botfly larvae growing under the skin. Parasites like fleas, roundworms, and botflies are just part of life for wild animals, and squirrels and their native botflies have coexisted for millions of years without issue. The stress of capturing a squirrel for treatment would be much greater than the risk of the botflies simply running their course, which is usually completed by late fall.

There’s no need to panic about botflies passing to you or your pets. Botflies tend to be species-specific and it’s very rare for them to grow in the skin of any animal besides their preferred host. If you live in North America, you’ve probably already encountered squirrel botfly eggs many times while climbing trees as a kid or doing yard work as an adult, and of course there was no harm done. You don’t have to kill or relocate squirrels, or use pesticides in your yard, to keep yourself safe.

Please let nature be nature, even when it looks icky! Both squirrels and native insects deserve to live in peace.

Don’t Feed Corn to Wild Animals

Please be careful about where your good intentions lead! Especially around this time of year, a lot of people will feed wildlife to try to help them prepare for winter. Because corn is cheap and is readily eaten by most mammals, it’s a common choice for supplemental food.

Native wild animals don’t need our help preparing for winter: they evolved alongside their food sources to have exactly what they need during each time of year. Some animals, like chipmunks and jays, prepare form winter by storing natural autumn foods like acorns and nuts. Others, like many songbirds, migrate. Deer change their digestive systems to adapt to a low-calorie woody diet. Most animals drastically reduce their activity level to conserve energy. Seasonal changes are a normal, natural, and beautiful part of the balance of nature, and we don’t need to intervene in animals’ seasonal diets any more than we need to intervene in the fruiting of plants or the changing of leaves.

Even if you insist on feeding wildlife corn is not a healthy meal for most wild animals. Compared to natural foods, corn is high in sugar and calories and low in vitamins and minerals, sort of like the animal equivalent of a Snickers bar. While occasionally raising sweet corn from a garden won’t cause most animals much trouble, they can become very sick if they eat it routinely.

Waterfowl who eat too much corn are at risk for angelwing syndrome, which renders them unable to fly. Raccoons, opossums, and squirrels who eat too much of it can develop liver disease and bone deformities. Deer who eat corn after their winter metabolic changes often succumb to ketoacidosis because their bodies can’t process sugar. Bears who begin eating corn will get excited about the hand-outs and killed when they get cozy around people.

Another problem: rats and mice love corn more than nearly any other wild animals, and you’ll end up with a lot of them if you leave it out as a food source!

Please don’t feed corn to wild animals. You can keep them healthy in fall and winter by giving them space, protecting their habitats, keeping your pets indoors, and growing native plants.

Rethinking Tennessee’s Prairie Wolf

We think it’s way past time to rethink how people view coyotes in the Southeast. Often maligned and viewed as an invasive nuisance, they’re actually a critical part of our ecosystem just like their closely related predecessors, the red wolves.

It’s nothing new for a closely related animal to fill in the gaps left when one animal becomes extirpated (locally extinct). A local example: after elk were completely eliminated from the Southeast in the 1800s, conservationists introduced a Canadian subspecies in 2000. Our herds of elk aren’t exactly the same as those that once lived here, but they are behaviorally, physically, and ecologically similar and are respected for their role in the local web of life.

Coyotes, too, are in many ways nearly identical to red wolves, who used to naturally live all over the South. Red wolves and Southeastern coyotes are similar in size, diet, appearance, communication, and behavior, and are close relatives.

The two cousin species may have shared common ancestors as recently as the 10,000 years ago— the blink of an eye, on an ecological scale. It wasn’t until the end of the last ice age that these relatives separated, with coyotes settling on one side of the Mississippi, and red wolves forming their own population on the other.

It’s because of this close relationship that we’d like to bring back an older name for the coyote: “prairie wolf.” A coyote is much more closely related to a red wolf than an Ethiopian wolf is related to an arctic wolf, yet it’s been given a name that implies that it’s entirely different. While the name “coyote” conjures images of scrappy pests, the world is starting to appreciate wolves, and maybe can one day appreciate the prairie wolf as much as its cousins.

Nature has an amazing way of filling gaps, and after humanity destroyed the wolves that kept our ecosystem stable, the land thirsted for them. We experienced unsustainable explosions of rats, mice, rabbits, deer, and raccoons, and we saw traffic accidents, loss of forests, and outbreaks of diseases as a result.

Coyotes, being a bit more adaptable than their cousins, moved back to the East and bred with feral dogs and the last of our wild wolves, creating the familiar animals we know now. They’re not a nuisance, but part of the fabric that holds our natural world in balance.

Why Red Foxes are Red

To human eyes, a red fox’s flame-colored fur stands out starkly against vegetation, but— believe it or not!— red foxes actually evolved their characteristic coats as camouflage.

Animals aren’t capable of producing green pigment. Animals that appear green actually depend on structural coloration, or the use of microscopic physical traits to reflect green light. Scales, feathers, and skin can have green structural coloration, but so far, no animal has developed structurally green fur. They have to go for the surprising next-best thing: orange!

Most of a red fox’s predators and prey are red-green colorblind. A wolf or rabbit sees grassy green and reddish orange as essentially the same color. Colorblind humans usually have the same limitation and can relate! Red foxes can blend into grass or leaves with their rich ruddy fur.

The fox’s white chest and belly aren’t a coincidence, either. This trait is called counter shading, and it helps hide the shadow created by the fox’s body.

Despite their name, red foxes can occur in nearly any imaginable color. While most are red to orange, “silver” or black foxes are common in some areas and have a natural advantage in shadowy forests. Rare genes can also make a fox appear white or cream, or even more exotic colors like lilac or sapphire, but these are very rare in the wild since they put a fox at a disadvantage.

Aren’t these animals amazing?

Tennessee Cave Salamanders

Wouldn’t it be great if every little-known or underappreciated species could have its own fifteen minutes of fame? In the last year, axolotls— endangered salamanders native to Mexico— have had their time in the spotlight, and it’s no doubt done wonders to focus attention on protecting and conserving them. But did you know that we have our own very cool, very special salamanders right here in Tennessee and that they also need protection?

Tennessee cave salamanders are superficially similar to axolotls because, like axolotls, they are a neotenic species— reaching sexual maturity while still in the larval stage. While most of the world’s salamanders undergo metamorphosis and and leave the water at some point, Tennessee cave salamanders are among the many species that become adults while they’re still tadpoles. Only two wild Tennessee cave salamanders have ever been found naturally in their full “adult” form.

Tennessee cave salamanders live only in caves on the Cumberland Plateau, with almost all of their natural habitats within Tennessee state lines and a few small caves in Alabama and Georgia. While Tennessee cave salamanders exclusively live in underground streams, their close relative the spring salamander can often be seen above-ground and on land in forests throughout the Eastern United States.

Like axolotls, Tennessee cave salamanders are extremely sensitive to pollution, which is why they are in trouble. Runoff from fertilizers, pesticides, eroding soil, sewage, and garbage eventually makes its way into the underground streams where Tennessee cave salamanders spend their lives. The choices we make in our daily lives, when we litter or use pesticides, can impact the survival of these delicate creatures who share our planet.

Please help us spread the word about some of the lesser-known native species who need our love and protection! Maybe one day, Tennessee cave salamanders will be in Minecraft, too.

Thank you to Matthew Niemiller for the photo!

Variations in Striped Skunks

Two striped skunks patients, one nearly all white and one nearly all black.

“What kind of skunk is this? Isn’t this one different?”

“Isn’t it supposed to have more black?”

“Is it going to get more white when it gets older?”

We see these questions a lot about our striped skunk patients! Skunks have highly variable markings, and we routinely see patients who are nearly all-black or nearly all-white. These are all normal variations and not a sign of a medical problem.

The majority of wild skunks have classical markings that are predominantly black with a stripe on the snout and a spot on the head that splits on each side to create a V-shaped white mark, which extends to down the back and into the tail. These markings direct potential predators’ eyes to the skunk’s rear end, as a warning of where it carries its chemical weapon.

About 5% of striped skunks in East Tennessee have “star” markings, without the “V” shape, and with only. White mark on the head. Some “shooting star” skunks have very small, thin trails that lead down the shoulders but not the rest of the back.

While exotic color variations like chocolate, champagne, lilac, and blue occur often in captivity, they are very rare to nonexistent in the wild. Unusual colors usually result from inbreeding and make skunks less recognizable to predators, so they are more likely to be targeted as prey.

We love all of our skunk patients and enjoy seeing the diversity of the animal world. Despite the differences between individuals, all of the skunks we have received are normal variations of one species, the striped skunk.

Amazing Newborn Opossum Development

Believe it or not, this isn’t a human embryo. Or a dog embryo. Or a giraffe embryo. It’s not an embryo at all, but a newborn animal already out of the womb and in the world! This is a real photo of an opossum joey, taken moments after birth.

At a glance, newborn opossums look almost indistinguishable from the young of placental mammals early in gestation. If you put this photo side-by-side with pictures of rats, cats, and humans in the first 12 days after conception, you probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. But, while we depend on nutrition and oxygen from the placenta for many months, an opossum joey needs none of that! They go right from being jellybean-sized embryos to being born, skipping the fetal stage entirely!

Despite being so tiny and squishy and formless, opossums are born with claws that enable them to grasp the mother’s hair and skin, and a strong sense of gravity that tells them to start the journey up from her pseudo vaginal canal toward her nipples. From there, they instinctively find a teat and swallow it. Opossum joeys stay attached to their mothers’ nipples for several weeks and then start to emerge from the pouch.

It’s incredible to share a planet with animals who are so much like us, and yet so different! We start the beginning of life looking nearly identical, but the way we grow and develop is dramatically different. How amazing is that?

Smiling Opossums: Scared, Not Happy

You know all those adorable memes, showing opossums “smiling” while being handled? It’s common for people who find orphaned or injured opossums to project that the animal knows it’s being helped or is happy to be cuddled and pet. Some unethical exhibitors will even distribute photos of smiling opossums as evidence that they love to be passed around and played with by strangers. Yikes. 😞

It’s very important to remember that animals don’t show feelings the same way we do. That’s especially true for opossums, whose jaw shape lends toward the appearance of a “smile,” and who will hold their mouths open when experiencing extreme fear. While it may look cute to you, the opossum’s smile is an attempt to show its teeth and look scary. One of the worst things to do with a “smiling” opossum is to play with it.

Humans are apex predators and opossums are relatively weak, relatively defenseless prey animals. They don’t think of us as friends or helpers. Even tame opossums may experience fear and anxiety while being handled and may express it by “smiling.”

This little cutie was a patient with our friends at Out of the Woods Wildlife Rescue, which of course correctly understood that she was scared and needed space. If you find an animal in need of assistance, please don’t handle it any more than is absolutely necessary to bring it to a rehabilitator.