Nimble and clever, with a striped tail the length of its body, the ringtail was declared Arizona’s state mammal in 1986, heralded along with the cactus wren (the state bird), giant saguaro (the state flower) and ridge-nosed rattlesnake (the state reptile) as a distinctive member of our natural landscape. Because they are nocturnal, few people ever see these creatures in the wild, although you may hear them rummaging around for food or catch their eyeshine in a flashlight if you happen to be camping out in ringtail territory.
A long, lithe body and banded tail must be very useful traits, since several other species with these features have evolved in other parts of the world. The ringtail is sometimes confused with the band-tailed lemur, a native to the island of Madagascar off the southeastern coast of Africa. Lemurs are primates and thus more closely related to humans than to ringtails. Another look-alike is the civet, a southeast Asian animal popularly known for its musk, which has been used in formulas for expensive perfumes, including Chanel No. 5.
Although not closely related to either lemurs or civets, ringtails are close cousins to two other critters with black-and-white tails that live in Arizona, raccoons and coatimundis. How to tell the difference? Raccoons and coatis are both much larger than a ringtail; a large raccoon or coati can be up to 15 pounds, whereas an adult ringtail is rarely more than 3 pounds. Coatis have a long pointed snout, and usually travel in small groups during the day; both raccoons and ringtails are nocturnal and mostly solitary. Raccoons have a black mask, whereas ringtails have big, dark eyes rimmed with white eyebrows. Ringtails are slender, like a ferret or weasel, and about one and a half feet long; half of that length is their magnificent bushy tail. Fortunately for them, their fur is not luxurious enough to be highly valued, nor are they considered pests, so ringtails are rarely trapped or hunted intentionally.
Their Latin name, Bassariscus astutus, means “clever little fox.” Sometimes they are called miner’s cats, harkening back to the days when miners kept them as pets to keep camps pest free, since ringtails feed on mice, insects and lizards. Ringtails are neither fox nor cat, which adds to the confusion about these seldom seen animals. They are common throughout the desert southwest of the United States and Mexico, as well as agricultural areas and scrub forests of higher elevations. They have adapted well to urban life also: the resident ringtail at Adobe Mountain Wildlife Center in north Phoenix, named Ringo, was captured in the attic of a nearby shopping center, where he slept during the day, and scavenged for food in the store during the night!
You can learn more about ringtails and other native wildlife at the Adobe Mountain Wildlife Center. For information about volunteer opportunities, events, education and wildlife sponsorship, visit their website: www.azwildlifecenter.net
Since May 2005, I have written a natural history column for a neighborhood newsletter published by Jennifer Moore called "Our Big Backyard: Natural History of the Deem Hills," and since 2010, "A Suburban Naturalist."All of these columns are reproduced here. Deem Hills is a City of Phoenix Desert Preserve located just north of Happy Valley Road in north central Phoenix, and just west of I-17. The Preserve and adjacent hills comprise over 900 acres of open space with several miles of hiking trails. For more perspectives from the Deem Hills and suburban Phoenix, also check out my companion blog, Kat Tracks.
As a naturalist with a special interest in botany and plant ecology, some of my greatest passions are to explore, photograph and write about native plants. If I can spark an awareness or interest in natural history in others along the way, that is my greatest reward.