Local News
9:36 am
Fri August 2, 2013

NC Explainer: Possums, Shark Teeth And Whirligigs

Some of Vollis Simpson's whirligigs.
Some of Vollis Simpson's whirligigs.
Credit Brendan Greaves / Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park

Sometimes one new possum law just isn't enough.

This week we've been examining some of the ways North Carolina laws are changing. The changes are the result of the legislative session that ended last week – the first in more than a century in which Republicans controlled both the General Assembly and the governor's mansion. We've addressed gun rights, abortion, education, and voting rights. This morning, we're going a different direction. We finish our series with some of the quirky legislation that passed.

There are two new laws that deal with possums. Let's start with maybe the best title of any bill in the legislature this year: "The Opossum Right-to-Work Act." It passed under another name, but its point was to make sure a certain possum in Brasstown doesn't lose its job on New Year’s Eve.

Possum Drop, And The Official Possum Is...

Clay Logan and his wife own a store called Clay's Corner, and they hold a possum drop with a live possum in a plexiglass container.

"We lower the possum down with a count from 10 down, bring him down, and then we have some fireworks, and everybody goes home happy," Logan said. "And we turn the possum loose and he's happy, and we're ready for another year."

But PETA filed a lawsuit over that, and a judge ruled a year ago that the state Wildlife Resources Commission didn't have the authority to grant a permit to Logan for the possum drop. So this year, legislators passed a new law giving the commission that authority.

Logan is grateful. He says the possum drop has been a tradition in the small community of Brasstown for almost 20 years, and he says they always release the possum – unharmed – back into the wild. 

The second new possum law makes a certain type of possum the official marsupial of North Carolina.

Credit Dawn Huczek / Flickr

It's called the Virginia opossum. (Ironic, right? But the legislation says it's native to North Carolina.)

It may also be the kind that's dropped in Brasstown. (Clay Logan isn't sure but thinks it is.) It's about the size of a large house cat, and it often has a white face with black ears and a blackish grey body. Like most marsupials, the females can carry their kids in a pouch, kind of like a kangaroo.

'The Most Fearsome Creature Ever To Haunt The Oceans'

Lawmakers gave North Carolina a bunch of new symbols, all from the same bill about the Virginia Opossum. For example, our official state fossil is now the megalodon shark tooth. If you've never heard of megalodon, here’s an introduction from a Discovery Channel show:

"This bone-bed was the hunting ground of megaladon - (Chomp!) the most fearsome creature ever to haunt the oceans. (Splash!) T-Rex wouldn't have a chance against this thing. T-Rex's head would fit in this guy's mouth."

A replica of a megalodon shark's jaws
A replica of a megalodon shark's jaws
Credit Ryan Somma / Flickr

OK, the show may have exaggerated a little bit. But megalodon was a huge shark, maybe 50 feet long. And if you want to see just how big its jaws were, you can go to Fort Fisher Aquarium in southeastern North Carolina. Hap Fatzinger is the curator.

"We found the megalodon teeth off our coast a few years back," Fatzinger said. "It's just such a cool artifact and a cool story behind that animal that once used to swim right along the coast and actually swim over the top of where we are right now."

Fatzinger said that was about 2 million years ago. He said the replica of megalodon's jaws at Fort Fisher is probably the most photographed thing in the entire aquarium. And he thinks it's awesome that the giant shark's teeth are now the official state fossil.

A 'Charismatic' Salamander, And What's The Point?

Lawmakers also agreed that the pine barrens tree frog is now the official state frog and the marbled salamander is the official salamander.

The legislation described the salamander as a charismatic and chunky-bodied amphibian, of which no two are exactly alike. Apparently the marbled salamander has a mouth that makes it look like it's smiling, and they're kind of plump. Here's Jeff Hall of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission:

The marbled salamander
The marbled salamander
Credit Todd W Pierson / Flickr

 "They're just really interesting, friendly-looking animals - to use a human term to describe an animal," Hall said with a laugh. 

This type of legislation does have a point. It shows a bit of our history and give us concrete examples – however silly – of what defines North Carolina. Catawba College Professor Michael Bitzer studies the legislature, and here's his take:

"All state legislatures take great pride in things that are unique and that they want to accentuate in terms of this is truly North Carolina - create that kind of civic pride in the state," Bitzer said. 

This next symbol is a great example of that. The official state folk art is now the whirligig. (Think of an intricate sculpture with moving parts, often swayed or spun by the wind.) That type of art is deeply tied to the city of Wilson and a man named Vollis Simpson.

Jenny Moore was close friends with Simpson, who passed away at the age of 94 in May. She said it means a lot for the state to recognize his art.   

More of Vollis Simpson's whirligigs.
More of Vollis Simpson's whirligigs.
Credit Brendan Greaves / Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park

"He knew about it before he died, although it hadn't passed the Senate at that point," Moore said. "He was a very humble man and never let anything go to his head, but I think it made him feel good to be recognized."

And Moore said it also means a lot for the city of Wilson. It's now building a Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park in downtown. Moore, who's the project manager, says the official recognition is helping the town drum up support for the park.