The name "ringtail" comes from the seven or eight black rings on the animal’s tail. Although they are not related to cats, people have referred to them as miner’s cat (historically appreciated as a mouser), civet cat (because of pungent secretion from anal glands), and cacomistle (an Aztec Nahuatl term meaning half mountain lion). Along with raccoons and coatimundis, ringtails are members of the Procyonidae (raccoon) family. The scientific name, Bassariscus astusus, comes from bassar (fox), isc (little), and astut (cunning).
If one were to design a climbing animal to exploit the desert’s cracks, ledges and vertical cliffs, the ringtail might be it. Their considerable tail provides balance for negotiating narrow ledges and limbs, even allowing them to reverse directions by performing a cartwheel. They can rotate their hind feet 180 degrees, giving them purchase for rapidly descending cliffs or trees as well as cacti. Furthermore, ringtails can ascend narrow passages by stemming (pressing all feet on one wall and their back against the other or pressing both right feet on one wall and both left feet on the other), and wider cracks or openings by ricocheting between the walls.
The body is compact and sleek with an elongated, pointed muzzle. Dark brown to black hairs surround the large eyes, creating a prominent mask. Large grayish-brown ears are edged in white. A ringtail’s total length ranges between 24 and 32 inches with a tail length of 12 to 17 inches. They weigh from 30 to 39 ounces.
Vocalizations include squeaks, metallic chirps, whimpers, chitters, chucking, hisses, grunts, growls and ululations.
Ringtails range across the southwestern USA and most of Mexico with outliers in northern California, Nebraska, Missouri and extreme southwest Wyoming.
Predator and Prey
Like most members of the Order Carnivora, these hunters eat a wide variety of food. They have a seasonal diet, with plants and insects the favorite fall food, mammals and birds more common in winter, and insects dominate in summer. Preferred mammals include mice, woodrats, squirrels and rabbits. Ringtails also feed on nectar from agaves. Great horned owls are their major predator, along with coyotes, raccoons and bobcats.
Habits and Habitat
Primarily nocturnal, ringtails develop an aversion to daylight at a young age. As might be expected for such an agile animal, ringtails inhabit rough, rocky habitat, usually not too far from water, although they can subsist without free water if their diet consists of high protein prey or fruit and insects. In addition, they occur in semi-arid landscapes such as pinyon-juniper pygmy forests and oak woodlands. Ringtails den in tree hollows, rock crevices, other animals’ abandoned burrows or even abandoned buildings. Except in bad weather, they move frequently, rarely spending more than three straight nights in one den.
Mating occurs between February and May with one to four, hairless young born in May or June. Eyes open and fur covers their bodies by five to six weeks. They are weaned by fall and can mate near the end of their second year.
The genus Bassariscus consists of only one other species, B. sumichrasti, which lives in Central America. Because ringtails do not walk on the soles of their feet, unlike coatis or raccoons, they are sometimes placed in their own family, Bassariscidae. The oldest Bassariscus fossils come from Miocene-age (24-to-6-million-year-old) rocks in Nebraska, Nevada and California. The ringtail became the State Mammal of Arizona on August 13, 1986.
David B. Williams
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