Zion National Park Human-Ringtail Interactions

Ringtail (Bassariscus astutus), Photo Courtesy US FWS, San Andres NWR
Ringtail (Bassariscus astutus)
Photo Courtesy US FWS
Within Zion national park, there is a small, little known creature named the ringtail. It is related to the raccoon and is completely nocturnal. With big eyes, bigger ears, and a black and white striped tail, they seem like a fairy tale critter. However, they are very real, albeit elusive and extremely smart. They are about the size of a house cat and spend their time hunting for mice, lizards, bird eggs, and insects while also foraging for berries and seeds. They are quite adaptable mammals, changing their diet to suit their surroundings. They can be found throughout the southwest and western coastal states from Oregon to Texas, in all sorts of habitats. However, they are rarely seen, so their presence in the desert of southern Utah usually goes unnoticed. Many residents of southern Utah don’t even know that ringtails exist, let alone live in their back yard.

A relatively large population of ringtails exist in Zion National Park, one of the most heavily traveled national parks in the US. Last year, alone, over 3.6 million people visited the park. Those tourists and visitors often eat packaged and pre-cooked foods while in the park, disposing of their trash in proper receptacles or, rather irresponsibly, along trails and campgrounds. This creates ample opportunities for ringtails to gain access to human food, such as trashcans, and may encourage them to forage for food around campsites and visitor lodging. This behavior is a problem for the guests and employees of Zion National Park, but it is also extremely problematic for the ringtails in this area.

Ringtail (Bassariscus astutus), Photo Courtesy US BLM
Ringtail (Bassariscus astutus)
Photo Courtesy US BLM
© Lee Dittmann, Photographer
The consumption of human foods and trash items are creating a significant shift in the composition of the diets of ringtails in this park. Researchers at Utah State University collected scats from ringtails in the park to analyze what they were eating. While the scats collected far from human buildings and activity showed the diet that is expected for wild ringtails in this area (e.g. insects, plant material, and some small rodent remains), the scats collected around and inside human buildings told a much more disconcerting story. There was trash and non-digestible food items present in over a third of the scats collected. These items perhaps could be due to the wrappings of human food, such as napkins, or they could be a byproduct of trying to gain access to the food, such as eating foil candy bar wrappers. A lot of human food is accessed through improperly sealed trash containers, poor food storage in campsites and cabins, and potentially hand feeding, all of which put the ringtails at risk for dietary problems, behavioral problems, and possibly death.

The ringtails are also coming towards buildings in the communities around Zion National Park, such as Springdale and Rockville, to seek easy shelter in the colder months, something that is not necessary for their survival. Properly sealing homes, particularly attics, in the areas where ringtails occur will prevent the ringtails from entering the living spaces of humans, and gaining access to food items dangerous to them. It will also prevent the homeowner from dealing with the aftermath of having a ringtail take up residence in an attic or crawlspace. Any hole larger than 2″ in diameter is enough to allow an adult male ringtail to enter. Surveying a house’s foundations and siding each fall to identify any such holes, and fill them in, can go a long way toward preventing ringtails from entering a home; helping ringtails practice healthy, wild behavior.

Ringtails are a certainly a wildlife sighting to remember, but make sure you only see them on their terms. Always properly store, prepare, and dispose of food items when in areas with wildlife. It protects you and it protects them, making sure your experience in natural areas remains a positive one.

Credits:
Images:   Courtesy US FWS
               Courtesy US BLM & Copyright © Lee Dittmann, Photographer
Text:        Adrian Roadman, Nicki Frey and Mary-Ann Muffoletto
Read by:  Mary-Ann Muffoletto, Utah State University College of Natural Resources
Credits:    Adrian Roadman and Nicki Frey

Additional Reading:

Human-Ringtail Interactions in Zion National Park

Ringtail (Bassariscus astutus), Photo Courtesy US FWS, San Andres NWR
Ringtail (Bassariscus astutus)
Photo Courtesy US FWS
Within Zion national park, there is a small, little known creature named the ringtail. It is related to the raccoon and is completely nocturnal. With big eyes, bigger ears, and a black and white striped tail, they seem like a fairy tale critter. However, they are very real, albeit elusive and extremely smart. They are about the size of a house cat and spend their time hunting for mice, lizards, bird eggs, and insects while also foraging for berries and seeds. They are quite adaptable mammals, changing their diet to suit their surroundings. They can be found throughout the southwest and western coastal states from Oregon to Texas, in all sorts of habitats. However, they are rarely seen, so their presence in the desert of southern Utah usually goes unnoticed. Many residents of southern Utah don’t even know that ringtails exist, let alone live in their back yard.

A relatively large population of ringtails exist in Zion National Park, one of the most heavily traveled national parks in the US. Last year, alone, over 3.6 million people visited the park. Those tourists and visitors often eat packaged and pre-cooked foods while in the park, disposing of their trash in proper receptacles or, rather irresponsibly, along trails and campgrounds. This creates ample opportunities for ringtails to gain access to human food, such as trashcans, and may encourage them to forage for food around campsites and visitor lodging. This behavior is a problem for the guests and employees of Zion National Park, but it is also extremely problematic for the ringtails in this area.

Ringtail (Bassariscus astutus), Photo Courtesy US BLM
Ringtail (Bassariscus astutus)
Photo Courtesy US BLM
© Lee Dittmann, Photographer
The consumption of human foods and trash items are creating a significant shift in the composition of the diets of ringtails in this park. Researchers at Utah State University collected scats from ringtails in the park to analyze what they were eating. While the scats collected far from human buildings and activity showed the diet that is expected for wild ringtails in this area (e.g. insects, plant material, and some small rodent remains), the scats collected around and inside human buildings told a much more disconcerting story. There was trash and non-digestible food items present in over a third of the scats collected. These items perhaps could be due to the wrappings of human food, such as napkins, or they could be a byproduct of trying to gain access to the food, such as eating foil candy bar wrappers. A lot of human food is accessed through improperly sealed trash containers, poor food storage in campsites and cabins, and potentially hand feeding, all of which put the ringtails at risk for dietary problems, behavioral problems, and possibly death.

The ringtails are also coming towards buildings in the communities around Zion National Park, such as Springdale and Rockville, to seek easy shelter in the colder months, something that is not necessary for their survival. Properly sealing homes, particularly attics, in the areas where ringtails occur will prevent the ringtails from entering the living spaces of humans, and gaining access to food items dangerous to them. It will also prevent the homeowner from dealing with the aftermath of having a ringtail take up residence in an attic or crawlspace. Any hole larger than 2″ in diameter is enough to allow an adult male ringtail to enter. Surveying a house’s foundations and siding each fall to identify any such holes, and fill them in, can go a long way toward preventing ringtails from entering a home; helping ringtails practice healthy, wild behavior.

Ringtails are a certainly a wildlife sighting to remember, but make sure you only see them on their terms. Always properly store, prepare, and dispose of food items when in areas with wildlife. It protects you and it protects them, making sure your experience in natural areas remains a positive one.

Credits:
Images:   Courtesy US FWS
               Courtesy US BLM & Copyright © Lee Dittmann, Photographer
Text:        Adrian Roadman, Nicki Frey and Mary-Ann Muffoletto
Read by:  Mary-Ann Muffoletto, Utah State University College of Natural Resources
Credits:    Adrian Roadman and Nicki Frey

Additional Reading:

Ringtails

Ringtail (Bassariscus astutus), Photo Courtesy US FWS
Ringtail (Bassariscus astutus)
Photo Courtesy US FWS
San Andres NWR
I’ve long been intrigued by ringtail cats. I wasn’t quite sure where they fit in the grand scheme of things until I did some research while working in Zion N.P. where they were known to vandalize building contents and other mischievous behaviors.
These “mystery” cats are mostly nocturnal, highly secretive, very bright, and full of tricks and athletic feats that place them in an elite animal category. I was intent on seeing one but knew my chances were slight. On a midmorning hike into Hidden Canyon I was startled by something not far ahead of me scrambling up giant boulders. To my amazement, there they were- two ringtails hightailing in broad daylight- my first, and possibly last, sighting of these amazing animals!
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, civet cat, 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 an animal to climb along ledges and up vertical cliffs, the ringtail might be it. Their large tail provides balance for narrow ledges and limbs, even allowing them to reverse directions by doing a cartwheel. They can rotate their hind feet 180 degrees to quickly climb back down 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.

A ringtail’s total length ranges between inches with a tail length of 12 to 17 inches. They weigh two pounds or so. Vocalizations include squeaks, metallic chirps, whimpers, chitters, chucking, hisses, grunts, growls, and howls.
Like most omnivores, 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.

Primarily nocturnal, ringtails don’t like daylight at a young age. 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. Ringtails range across the southwestern USA and most of Mexico with outliers in northern California, Nebraska, Missouri and extreme southwest Wyoming.The genus Bassariscus consists of only one other species 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 ringtail became the State Mammal 1986.

For Wild About Utah, this is Jack Greene.

Credits:

Pictures: Courtesy US FWS, San Andres NWR
Text: Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading:

Animal Fact Sheet: Ringtail, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, https://www.desertmuseum.org/kids/oz/long-fact-sheets/Ringtail.php

Ringtail (Bassariscus astutus), Wildscreen Arkive, http://www.arkive.org/ringtail/bassariscus-astutus/