Animal Spotlight: Ring-Tailed Cat

ringtailbassariscusastutus

Taxonomy:

  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Mammalia
  • Order: Carnivora
  • Family: Procyonidae
  • Genus: Bassariscus
  • Species: astusus
  • Average Body Length: 24.4-32 in (62-81 cm)
  • Average Tail Length: 12.2-13.4 cm (31-44 cm)
  • Average Shoulder Height: 6.3 in (16 cm)
  • Average Weight: 1.8-2.9 lbs (0.8-1.3 kg)
  • Average Lifespan: 7 years

Also known as the ring-tailed cat, the ringtail is not a part of the feline family. Although they are not related to cats, people have referred to this mammal as “miner’s cat” because of its role as companions and mousers to early American settlers and in prospectors’ camps. Other nicknames include civet cat because of its pungent secretion from anal glands and cacomistle, an Axtec Nahuatl term meaning half mountain lion. The ringtail, whose name comes from the seven to eight black rings on the animal’s tail, is actually a member of the Procyonidae (raccoon) family.

This species is common and widespread across most of Mexico and southern North America from California to Texas. It is known to occur from Oaxaca in southern Mexico to the desert region of Baja California, as well as on the three islands of Tiburón, San José and Espíritu Santo in the Gulf of California. There are outlier populations in northern California, Nebraska, Missouri, and southwest Wyoming.

They occur in a variety of habitats, including semi-arid oak forest, pinyon pine or juniper forest, montane conifer forest, chaparral, desert, rocky areas, and canyons. It also adapts well to disturbed areas and is frequently found inside buildings.

Physical Description:

ringtail5
Source: Arizona Game and Fish Department

A small carnivore in the raccoon family, the ringtail is about the size of a domestic cat and resembles a small fox with a raccoon-like tail. The body is compact and sleek with an elongated, pointed muzzle. Colorwise, the back of the ringtail is light brownish-yellow to greyish with a black or dark brown wash and grey underfur. The underpart is whitish or pale buff. On the face, dark brown to black hairs surround the large eyes, creating a prominent mask like a raccoon. The rest of the face is grey. It also has large grayish-brown ears, edged in white.

The tail is slightly flattened and is about the same length as the head and body, and is conspicuously marked with between 14 and 16 contrasting black and white bands. The black bands are incomplete on the underside of the tail, and the tail’s tip is black. Its tail provides balance when climbing the desert’s cracks, ledges, and vertical cliffs, even allowing the ringtail to reverse directions by performing a cartwheel.

In addition, ringtails can rotate their hind feet 180 degrees, giving them purchase for rapidly descending cliffs or trees. Furthermore, they 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.

Diet:

As an omnivore and most members of the order Carnivora, ringtails eat a wide variety of food. They have a seasonal diet with acorns, berries, fruits, and agave nectar, but they do show a dietary preference for animal matter. They will eat small mammals like rodents, rabbits, squirrels as well as birds, invertebrates, insects, and reptiles, depending on the season and location.

If they have a high protein or fruit diet, ringtails can subsist with free water.

 

Behavior:

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Primarily nocturnal, ringtails develop an aversion to daylight at a young age though there may be ringtail activity at dusk occasionally. Much of their time awake is spent foraging for food.  After feeding, a ringtail grooms itself while sitting on its hindquarters in a manner similar to that of a cat. A ringtail licks its fur and forepaws, which it then uses to wipe its cheeks, snout and ears.

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.

For the most part, the ringtail prefers solitude. However, during mating season, which usually takes place between February and May, they will meet. Mating system has not been reported but after a gestation period of 51 to 54 days, a litter, typically consisting of one to four young, will be born during May or June.

The den will be in a rock crevice, hollow tree, log, brush pile, or even inside a building or an artificial nest box. Although it does not construct or modify its den, it may make a nest of dried grass. They will change their den sites frequently, rarely spending more than two or three days in the same shelter. Individuals will usually den alone, although they have sometimes have been found sharing a den. Female ringtails may regularly move their young from den to den.

When the young are born, they are helpless and are unable to open their eyes until they are about a month old. At about seven weeks old, the young ringtails begin taking solid food and are weaned by eight to ten weeks. They will begin to forage with the mother from about two months of age. Ringtails reach sexual maturity in both sexes near ten months of age. Throughout the process the father may be tolerated and may play with the young, but for the most part, does not a role.

Conservation and Threats:

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Because it is a common and widespread species that adapts well to disturbed areas, the ringtail is not currently considered to be a high risk of extinction and is classified as “of least concern” on the IUCN Red List.

Its main threat is that it is legally trapped for fur in Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Texas. In some areas, it is also caught incidentally in traps set for other fur-bearing species such as foxes and raccoons. Though the number of ringtails trapped annually has decreased since a peak in 1979, there is no justification for states allowing trapping to continue. This is because their species’ pelts are of poor quality and usually sell for less than five dollars each. In the 1976-77 trapping season, the United States produced 88,329 pelts, which sold for an average price of $5.50. The harvest of these animals peaked at about 135,000 in 1978-79 and has since declined. In the 1991-92 season only 5,638 skins were taken, and their average price was $3.62.

Other potential threats to the ringtail come from collisions with vehicles and the spread of infectious diseases such as rabies, toxoplasmosis and canine parvovirus transmitted by feral cats and dogs.

The ringtail occurs in several protected areas throughout its range and is fully protected in California. Current studies indicate that land management strategies to conserve and protect this species should focus on maintaining areas of young forest with suitable trees and snags, as well as the vegetation and structure of canyon habitats and slopes. Regulating grazing and woodcutting may also benefit this species, and artificial nest boxes can potentially increase available den sites in some areas. Other suggested conservation measures for the ringtail include removing or vaccinating feral animals in certain areas, to prevent the spread of disease.

Knowledge of the ringtail population levels and trends is also insufficient to be able to assess whether trapping at the current rate is sustainable, allowing the species to continue to survive.

ringtail-cat-2
© Robert Body

Interesting Facts:

  • Vocalizations include squeaks, metallic chirps, whimpers, chitters, chucking, hisses, grunts, growls, and ululations.
  • The scientific name comes from bassar (fox), isc (little), and astut (cunning), translating into ‘cunning little fox’. Although, this species is actually a member of the raccoon family.
  • The genus Bassariscus consists of only one other species, B. sumichrasti, which lives in Central America.
  • An agile climber, the ringtail is able to descend trees and rocks head first by rotating its hind feet by 180 degrees.
  • Around 14 subspecies of ringtail have been described.
  • The oldest Bassariscus fossils come from Miocene age (24 to 6 million year old) rocks in Nebraska, Nevada, and California.
  • In Mexico, ringtails are often called “cacomistles” derived from the language of the Aztecs. In spanish, it means “nimble thief”.
  • The ringtail became the state mammal of Arizona on August 13, 1986.
  • Ringtails are sometimes called living fossils. This is because living Bassariscus species are hardly distinguishable from Neocene forms.
  • A female kept in captivity reached the age of 16.

References + For More Reading

Ringtails Cat

Ringtail (Bassariscus astutus)

The Mammals of Texas: Ringtail

Bassariscus astutus

ADW: Bassariscus astutus

The Biogeography of Ringtail Cats

Arizona State Mammal

Arizona Ringtail Cats

IUCN: Bassariscus astutus

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