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.
Pictures: Courtesy US FWS, San Andres NWR
Text: Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon Society
Animal Fact Sheet: Ringtail, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, https://www.desertmuseum.org/kids/oz/long-fact-sheets/Ringtail.php
Ringtail (Bassariscus astutus), Wildscreen Arkive, https://www.arkive.org/ringtail/bassariscus-astutus/