Recently, I was running, lost in my thoughts, and—WHOOPS—almost tripped over a shivering opossum crossing the bike path! After we both recovered our wits, I jogged in place and watched it waddle away, naked tail dragging through the snow. I rubbed my gloved—and still cold—hands together and wondered, why the heck do opossums live in Wisconsin?
When I got home, some Googling revealed an interesting fact: Wisconsin is at the limit of the opossum’s geographic range. In turn, this got me wondering—what governs the limits of a species’ range?
Ecologists typically classify range-limiting factors as either abiotic or biotic. Abiotic factors do not involve living organisms; climate is the quintessential example. Biotic factors are interactions with other organisms. A classic example is competition between organisms, which is a direct biotic interaction. However, biotic interactions can also be indirect, such as when one species improves or degrades habitat for another. Abiotic and biotic factors usually work in concert to limit an organism’s range.
The opossum I saw behind Olbrich Gardens bespeaks both. Opossums, with their naked tails and ears, have a difficult time surviving cold environments. And yet, opossums live in snowy Wisconsin! However, this is a relatively new phenomenon—opossums did not occur in Wisconsin until the 1850’s, when their range expanded northward. The opossum’s conquest of Wisconsin has been aided and abetted by another organism, namely Homo sapiens. Humans provide extra resources (like trash), which help opossums survive Wisconsin’s cold winters. A biotic interaction has helped opossums overcome an abiotic limitation.
Regardless of the exact cause, opossums reach the northern limit of their range in Wisconsin. Several other species reach range limits in the state, a fact that can come in handy while classifying Snapshot Wisconsin photos. Look a photo’s metadata—what county was it taken in? In some cases, this can narrow down identification possibilities. For example, any rabbit-looking creature in Waueksha County is likely an eastern cottontail, since snowshoe hares do not occur in southern Wisconsin. A good source for species range maps is NatureServe Explorer.
For more information about opossums, see this recent Snapshot Wisconsin blog post by Emily Buege.
For more information about the opossum’s range expansion northward, I recommend reading Walsh and Tucker (2017).
My brother Ian was a picky eater. Breakfast was always a bowl of Crispex. For lunch, he ate a PB&J and refused to eat the crusts. I was the opposite. Even as a young child, I loved proverbially “gross” foods like mushrooms and started drinking coffee when I was twelve.
Turns out that some animals are like Ian and some are like me. For example, monarch caterpillars only eat milkweed. We call animals like the monarch specialists. Conversely, some animals will eat, well, just about anything. Raccoons, for example, are equally happy eating crayfish from the creek or scraps from your garbage can. We call such species generalists.
Diet isn’t the only thing to be picky about! Some species exhibit preferences for precise habitat types. For example, the Kirtland’s Warbler breeds only in young jack pine barrens, primarily in Michigan, but also occasionally in Wisconsin. On the other hand, some species are ubiquitous. The coyote is an exemplar habitat generalist—you might spot one in the wilds of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest or in a suburb of Milwaukee.
Taken together, diet and habitat comprise what we call the ecological niche of a species. You can think of a niche as the “cubbyhole” that a species occupies within the broader tapestry of its environment. The breadth of a niche is a continuum from extreme specialists (like Kirtland’s Warblers) to extreme generalists (like raccoons). Some species fall between those extremes; deer are a great example. Deer are strict herbivores, but they can be found in many different habits, from forests to farmlands. So, not every species can be neatly classified as a generalist or a specialist.
Scientists are interested in generalists and specialists because they exhibit different responses to change. Like a trained craftsman whose job is replaced by a machine, the specialist has nowhere to go when the environment changes. Generalists, on the other hand, can capitalize on the vacant niche space and colonize altered landscapes. Given the widespread changes humans are exerting on the earth, we are seeing global proliferation of generalists while many specialists are disappearing, a process known as biotic homogenization.
This may seem dire, but the more we learn about generalists and specialists, the more we’ll be able to do to maintain biodiversity and lose fewer specialists. In the meantime, I encourage you to think about the animals you see on a regular basis. Is that squirrel outside your window an ecological jack-of-all-trades? Are there any habitat specialists that live on your property? And maybe even think about your own niche—are you a generalist, a specialist, or somewhere in between?