by Whit Gibbons

July 18, 2010

The following questions have been received this summer.

Q: I live in Eutaw, Ala. Every summer I see a plant that I have not been able to find an image for on the Internet. It "appears" to be a tangle of brown, dark orange or yellow vines without leaves, much like silly string. It covers the tops of other vines and bushes.

A: It is a parasitic vine called dodder. It is also known as strangle weed, golden thread and angel hair. The genus name is Cuscuta. Some plant taxonomists place the species in the morning glory family.

Dodder is common and widespread in the eastern United States from Canada to Florida and westward. Dodder has no leaves or roots. Its stem structures penetrate the host plant and remove nutrients. A true parasite, the plant is considered a botanical nightmare for some commercial crops such as cranberries, alfalfa and ornamentals. As with many plants we categorize as pests, dodder thrives in disturbed agricultural areas where erosion occurs and where natural vegetation and soils no longer exist because of human activities.

Q: I have a friend who believes in feeding anything that comes near the house, She is now feeding an opossum that visited her trash can and is living under her house. She is trying to feed it by hand. She even has given it some vitamins she has for her horses. I don't know if feeding wild animals is illegal in the state of Virginia, but I cannot think that overcoming the fear of humans or becoming dependent on a human source of food would be healthy for a wild animal of any species. Is it a good idea to feed wild animals?

A: Millions of people would say "yes" if we consider birds in the backyard as wild animals. As for possums, they are not usually a problem for humans. According to some scientists, they do not get rabies, although they will bite if given a chance. Wildlife laws vary from state to state, but it is not illegal most places to feed possums.

Feeding some species, however, is illegal and can sometimes create practical problems. For example, feeding alligators is against the law, and individual alligators can become aggressive if they get too familiar with humans. Many alligator attacks on humans are at locations where people have been feeding the gators. Raccoons can become a problem when they are fed around a home because they may decide that garbage cans, outbuildings or even the house itself should be checked out as a source of food. Plus, raccoons are highly susceptible to rabies. Federal laws prohibit feeding marine mammals such as dolphins and manatees in the wild.

Possums on the other hand are often kept as pets and other than being dumb as a post are fairly benign creatures. Sounds like the one you describe has already developed a dependence on humans (trash cans), so I am not sure that adding another step in the feeding process will make the situation any worse. One feature of possums that will take care of the situation sooner rather than later is that possums do not live very long for an animal that size--average about two years--so unless its babies show up for a handout, the problem will be solved within a year or so.

Q: A friend says he saw a red wolf in upstate South Carolina. Is there such a thing as a red wolf?

A: Your friend probably saw a coyote, a species that has spread throughout much of the Southeast and can be reddish in color, as well as gray, brown or black. So-called red wolves are classified as most closely related to gray wolves by some ecologists and wildlife biologists and to coyotes by others. Small populations of red wolves have been introduced into coastal South Carolina and on the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina, but few have spread far from the points of release.

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