The ringtail (Bassariscus astutus) is a mammal of the raccoon family, native to arid regions of North America. It is also known as the ringtail cat, ring-tailed cat, miner’s cat or bassarisk, and is also sometimes called a “civet cat” (after similar, though unrelated, cat-like omnivores of Asia and Africa). The ringtail is sometimes called a cacomistle, though this term seems to be more often used to refer to Bassariscus sumichrasti.
The ringtail is buff to dark brown in color with white underparts and a flashy black and white striped tail that has 14–16 white and black stripes,.which is longer than the rest of its body. The claws are short, straight, and semi-retractable. The eyes are large and black, each surrounded by a patch of light fur. It is smaller than a house cat and is one of the smallest extant procyonids (only the smallest in the olingo species group average smaller). It measures 30–42 cm (12–17 in) long to the base of the tail with the tail adding another 31–44 cm (12–17 in). It can weigh from 0.7 to 1.5 kg (1.5 to 3.3 lb). Ringtails have occasionally been hunted for their pelts, but the fur is not especially valuable.
Typically weighing around three pounds, ringtails possess superb hearing and eyes that allow them to move about at night. A nocturnal creature, the ringtail’s large eyes and upright ears make it easier for it to move about in the dark. Its fur ranges in coloring from tawny to grayish, and a pointed muzzle with long whiskers resembles that of a fox – which is appropriate in that its very name means ‘clever little fox’. Its tail is about a foot long, with seven to nine black rings and is about the same length as the animal’s body. Like its namesake, the ringtail uses this tail for balancing when moving about its habitat. The tail also serves another purpose, acting as a distraction for potential predators. The white rings provide predators with a focus other than the ringtail itself; by grabbing the tail rather than the body, the ringtail has a greater chance of escaping. Additionally, their semi-retractable claws and long tail provide the ringtail with tools ideal for climbing
In areas with a bountiful source of water, as many as 50 ringtails/sq. mile have been found. Ranging from 50 to 100 acres, the territories of male ringtails occasionally intersect with several females It has been suggested that ringtails utilize feces as a way to mark territory. In 2003, a study done in Mexico City found that ringtails tended to defecate in similar areas in a seemingly nonrandom pattern, mimicking that of other carnivores that utilized excretions to mark territories. Ringtails prefer a solitary existence but may share a den or be found mutually grooming one another. Limited interaction except during the breeding season which occurs in the early springtime. Occasional prey to coatis, foxes, coyotes, bobcats, lynxes, and mountain lions, the ringtail is rather adept at avoiding predators. Its ability to excrete musk when startled or threatened is largely attributed to the ringtail’s success in deterring potential predators. The main predators of the ringtail are the Great Horned Owl and the Red-tailed Hawk.
Range and habitat
The ringtail is found in Central America, Northern South America, California, Colorado, eastern Kansas, Oklahoma, Oregon, Arizona, New Mexico, southern Nevada, Texas, Utah and throughout northern and centralMexico. Its distribution overlaps that of B. sumichrasti in the Mexican states of Guerrero, Oaxaca and Veracruz. It has been reported to be living in western Louisiana, although no conclusive evidence has been found to support this. It is found in rocky desert as its habitat, where it nests in the hollows of trees or abandoned wooden structures. The ringtail is the state mammal of Arizona. It is also found in the Great Basin Desert. The Great Basin desert covers most of Nevada and over half of Utah, as well as parts of California, Idaho, and Oregon. The ringtail prefers to live in rocky habitats associated with water. These areas can include riparian canyons, caves, and mine shafts. It can also be found in the Sonoran Desert in Arizona, US.
The ankle joint is flexible and able to rotate over 180 degrees, a trait helping make it an agile climber. Their considerable tail provides balance for negotiating narrow ledges and limbs, even allowing them to reverse directions by performing a cartwheel. Ringtails also 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.
Much like the common raccoon, the ringtail is nocturnal and solitary. It is also timid towards humans and seen much less frequently than raccoons. Despite its shy disposition and small body size, the ringtail is arguably the most actively carnivorous species of procyonid, as even the closely related cacomistle eats a larger portion of fruits, insects and refuse. Small vertebrates such as passerine birds, rats, mice, squirrels, rabbits, snakes, lizards, frogs and toads are the most important food during winters. However, the ringtail is omnivorous, as are all procyonids. Berries and insects are important in the diet year-round and become the primary part of the diet in spring and summer along with fruit. Foxes, coyotes, raccoons, bobcats, hawks and owls will opportunistically prey upon ringtails of all ages, though most predominantly younger, more vulnerable specimens. They produce a variety of sounds, including clicks and chatters reminiscent of raccoons. A typical call is a very loud, plaintive bark. As adults, these mammals lead solitary lives, generally coming together only to mate.
As an omnivore the ringtail enjoys a variety of foods in its diet, the majority of which is made up of animal matter. Insects and small mammals such as rabbits, mice, rats and ground squirrels being some examples of the ringtail’s carnivorous tendencies. Occasionally the ringtail will also eat fish, lizards, birds, snakes and carrion. The ringtail also enjoys juniper, hack and black berries, persimmon, prickly pear, and fruit in general. They have even been observed partaking from hummingbird feeders, sweet nectar or sweetened water. In one study the scat of ringtails located on the island of San Jose were analyzed. The results showed that the ringtail tended to prey on whatever was most abundant during each respective season. During the spring time the ringtail’s diet consisted largely of insects, showing up in about 50% of the analyzed feces. Small rodents, snakes and some species of lizard were also present. Plant matter also presented in large amounts, around 59% of the collected feces contained some type of plant. The fruits Phaulothamnus, Lycium and Solanum were the most common. Characterized by their large amount of seeds, and ironwood leaves, these fleshy fruits were an obvious favorite of the ringtail.
Ringtails mate in the spring. The gestation period is 45–50 days, during which the male will procure food for the female. There will be 2–4 cubs in a litter. The cubs open their eyes after a month, and will hunt for themselves after four months. They reach sexual maturity at ten months. The ringtail’s lifespan in the wild is about seven years.
The ringtail is said to be easily tamed, and can make an affectionate pet and effective mouser. Miners and settlers once kept pet ringtails to keep their cabins free of vermin; hence, the common name of “miner’s cat” (though in fact the ringtail is no more a cat than it is civet). The ringtails would move into the miners’ and settlers’ encampments and become accepted by humans in much the same way that some early domestic cats were theorized to have done. At least one biologist in Oregon has joked that the ringtail is one of two species – the domestic cat and the ringtail – that thus “domesticated humans” due to that pattern of behavior.
Often a hole was cut in a small box and placed near a heat source (perhaps a stove) as a dark, warm place for the animal to sleep during the day, coming out after dark to rid the cabin of mice.