Ringtail (Bassariscus astutus)

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Ringtail
IUCN Red List species status – Least Concern LEAST
CONCERN

Top facts

  • The ringtail is named for its distinctive black-and-white banded tail.
  • The scientific name of the ringtail translates as ‘cunning little fox’, although this species is actually a member of the raccoon family.
  • An agile climber, the ringtail is able to descend trees and rocks head first by rotating its hind feet by 180 degrees.
  • The ringtail is able to survive in hot, arid areas with little drinking water.
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Ringtail fact file

Ringtail description

KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassMammalia
OrderCarnivora
FamilyProcyonidae
GenusBassariscus (1)

A small carnivore in the raccoon family (Procyonidae), the ringtail (Bassariscus astutus) is about the size of a domestic cat and resembles a small fox with a raccoon-like tail. 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 (2) (4).

The upperparts of the ringtail are light brownish-yellow to greyish with a black or dark brown wash and grey underfur, while the underparts are whitish or pale buff. The face is grey, with large whitish patches, and the eyes are ringed with black (2) (3) (4). The ringtail has a long, pointed muzzle, well-developed whiskers, and large, rounded ears that become whitish towards the tip (2) (4).

Around 14 subspecies of ringtail have been described (2). This species can be distinguished from the only other member of its genus, the cacomistle (Bassariscus sumichrasti), by its smaller size, relatively shorter tail, rounded rather than pointed ears, and furred rather than naked soles on its feet. The ringtail also has short, straight claws that can be partially retracted, whereas the cacomistle has long, curved, non-retractable claws (2) (3).

Also known as
babisuri, bandtailed cat, bassarisk, cacomistle, cacomixtle, cat squirrel, civet cat, coon cat, coon fox, miner’s cat, ringtail cat, ringtailed cat, ring-tailed cat.
Size
Total length: 62 - 81 cm (2)
Tail length: 31 - 44 cm (2) (3)
Shoulder height: c. 16 cm (3)
Weight
0.8 - 1.3 kg (3)
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Ringtail biology

The ringtail is a nocturnal species that is largely solitary apart from during the breeding season (1) (3). Breeding usually takes place between February and May, with most births occurring in May or June (2) (3) (5), after a gestation period of 51 to 54 days (2) (3). A litter typically consists of one to four young. The young are born in a den and are helpless at birth, with their eyes not opening until they are about 31 to 34 days old (2) (3) (4) (5). The young ringtails begin taking solid food at about seven weeks old, are weaned by eight to ten weeks (2) (3) (5), and begin to forage with the female from about two months of age (2) (3).

A skilled climber, the ringtail is agile in trees and among rocks, and is even able to make vertical descents, head first, by rotating its hind feet by 180 degrees to allow the pads and claws to remain in contact with the substrate (2) (3) (5).

During the day, the ringtail shelters in dens, which may be in a rock crevice, hollow tree, log, brush pile or even inside a building or an artificial nest box (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7). Although it does not construct or modify its den, it may make a nest of dried grass (2). The ringtail changes den site frequently, rarely spending more than two or three days in the same shelter (2) (8), and although individuals usually den alone they have sometimes been found sharing a den (5) (6) (7). Female ringtails may regularly move their young from den to den (2).

The ringtail produces a range of different vocalisations, including barks, hisses, growls and screams. Scent marking is also an important form of communication in this species (2) (3).

The ringtail eats a variety of foods, including small mammals, invertebrates, birds and reptiles, and it often supplements this diet with fruit and other plant material (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (8). Animal matter usually makes up the bulk of the diet (2) (5), but the exact composition of the diet may vary seasonally and with location (2) (4) (8). This species often inhabits hot, arid areas with little drinking water, and is capable of producing concentrated urine that helps reduce its water loss (9).

Studies into the ecology of the ringtail suggest that it plays an important role in its ecosystem, providing food for larger predators, influencing populations of its prey, and probably aiding in seed dispersal (8). The main predators of this small carnivore include great horned owls (Bubo virginianus), coyotes (Canis latrans), northern raccoons (Procyon lotor) and bobcats (Lynx rufus) (2) (8). In captivity, the ringtail has been recorded living for up to 16 years (2) (3).

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Ringtail range

The ringtail is common and widespread across Mexico and southern North America. 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. The ringtail also occurs across the south-western United States, from Oregon and California to Texas (1) (2).

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Ringtail habitat

The ringtail occurs in a variety of habitats, including semi-arid oak forest, pinyon pine (Pinus edulis) or juniper (Juniperus) forest, montane conifer forest, chaparral, desert, rocky areas and canyons (1) (2) (4). It also adapts well to disturbed areas and is frequently found inside buildings (1) (2).

This species has been observed in habitats from sea level to 1,400 metres above sea level, with infrequent observations at elevations of 2,000 and 2,900 metres (1) (2).

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Ringtail status

The ringtail is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

IUCN Red List species status – Least Concern

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Ringtail threats

A common and widespread species that adapts well to disturbed areas, the ringtail is not currently considered to be at high risk of extinction (1). The main threat to this species 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 (1) (2).

The number of ringtails trapped annually has decreased since a peak in 1979. However, there is no justification for states allowing trapping to continue as this species’ pelts are of poor quality and usually sell for less than five dollars each. Knowledge of the ringtail’s 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 (1).

Other potential threats to the ringtail come from collisions with vehicles (1) and the spread of infectious diseases such as rabies, toxoplasmosis and canine parvovirus transmitted by feral cats and dogs (10).

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Ringtail conservation

The ringtail occurs in several protected areas throughout its range (1) and is fully protected in California (11). 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 (7), as well as the vegetation and structure of canyon habitats and slopes (8). Regulating grazing and wood cutting may also benefit this species (2), and artificial nest boxes can potentially increase available den sites in some areas (6).

Other suggested conservation measures for the ringtail include removing or vaccinating feral animals in certain areas, to prevent the spread of disease (10).

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Find out more

Find out more about the ringtail and its conservation:

More information on the conservation of small carnivores:

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Authentication

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

This species information was authored as part of the ARKive and Universities Scheme.
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Glossary

Carnivore
An organism that feeds on flesh. The term can also be used to refer to a mammal in the order Carnivora.
Chaparral
A type of scrub habitat dominated by thorny, evergreen shrubs and characterised by a Mediterranean climate of hot, dry summers and mild, wet winters. The chaparral is found mainly in parts of California and Baja California.
Feral
Previously domesticated animals that have returned to a wild state.
Genus
A category used in taxonomy, which is below ‘family’ and above ‘species’. A genus tends to contain species that have characteristics in common. The genus forms the first part of a ‘binomial’ Latin species name; the second part is the specific name.
Gestation
The state of being pregnant; the period from conception to birth.
Invertebrates
Animals with no backbone, such as insects, crustaceans, worms, molluscs, spiders, cnidarians (jellyfish, corals, sea anemones) and echinoderms.
Montane forest
Forest occurring in mountains.
Nocturnal
Active at night.
Snag
A dead or dying tree that is still standing.
Subspecies
A population usually restricted to a geographical area that differs from other populations of the same species, but not to the extent of being classified as a separate species.
Underfur
An inner layer of short, fine, soft fur that lies beneath an animal’s outer fur and provides warmth and waterproofing.
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References

  1. IUCN Red List (September, 2012)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. Poglayen-Neuwall, I. and Toweill, D.E. (1988) Bassariscus astutus. Mammalian Species, 327: 1-8. Available at:
    http://www.science.smith.edu/msi/pdf/i0076-3519-327-01-0001.pdf
  3. Nowak, R.M. (1991) Walker’s Mammals of the World. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London.
  4. The Mammals of Texas - Ringtail (September, 2012)
    http://www.nsrl.ttu.edu/tmot1/bassastu.htm
  5. Schmidly, D.J. (1994) The Mammals of Texas. Revised Edition. University of Texas Press, Austin.
  6. Tiedt, A.R. (2011) Den site selection of ringtails (Bassariscus astutus) in West Central Texas. MSc Thesis, Angelo State University, San Angelo, Texas.
  7. Myers, C.H. (2010) Diurnal Rest Site Selection by Ringtails (Bassariscus astutus) in Northwestern California. MSc Thesis, Humboldt State University, California. Available at:
    http://humboldt-dspace.calstate.edu/bitstream/handle/2148/782/Thesis_CHMyersFinalDraft_Printed.pdf?sequence=3
  8. Ackerson, B.K. and Harveson, L.A. (2006) Characteristics of a ringtail (Bassariscus astutus) population in Trans Pecos, Texas. Texas Journal of Science, 58(2): 169-184.
  9. Chevalier, C.D. (2005) Water economy of free-living and captive ringtails, Bassariscus astutus (Carnivora: Procyonidae) in the Sonoran desert. In: Sánchez-Cordero, V. and Medellín, R.A. (Eds.) Contribuciones Mastozoológicas en Homenaje a Bernardo Villa. UNAM, Mexico.
  10. Suzán, G. and Ceballos, G. (2005) The role of feral mammals on wildlife infectious disease prevalence in two nature reserves within Mexico city limits. Journal of Zoo and Wildlife Medicine, 36(3): 479-484.
  11. California Department of Fish and Game - Fully Protected Animals (September, 2012)
    http://www.dfg.ca.gov/wildlife/nongame/t_e_spp/fully_pro.html
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Ringtail  
Ringtail

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