By Tom Batter, Wildlife Investigations Lab Scientific Aid
Imagine a creature with the body of a ferret, the tail of a lemur, the face of a fox, and the eyes of an owl. This animal is agile, elusive, and rarely observed due to its secretive nature. Such characteristics must describe a mysterious creature of Greek mythology, Viking lore, or an American folk tale… right? Wrong! What sounds like a fabled beast is actually a little-known, small predator that lives in California, the ringtail (Bassariscus astutus).
The ringtail is an exclusively nocturnal procyonid (i.e. raccoons and their kin), which is why it is seldom seen and relatively unknown to all but the most avid wildlife enthusiasts. It is a resident of California as well as the mountainous west, southwest, and south-central United States on down into Mexico. Preferred ringtail habitat consists of rocks, cliffs, and trees. Similar to their procyonid relatives, ringtails are adapted for omnivorous feeding and exceptional climbing ability. However, unlike raccoons, ringtails do not support themselves on the soles of their feet (plantigrade locomotion). Instead, they have adapted to moving on their toes (digitigrade locomotion) causing some scientists to place them in a separate family (Bassarisidae).
The ringtail’s most noticeable feature is its long bushy tail, alternately banded black and white. They use this tail for balance and abrupt directional changes while traveling. Ringtails have fine dexterity, sharp eyesight, and acute hearing making them excellent hunters of small mammals, birds, amphibians, and insects; in fact, ringtails are the most carnivorous members of the family Procyonidae. Ringtails have semiretractile claws with hind feet capable of rotating at least 180 degrees – traits which permit a ringtail to cling to near vertical surfaces and scale trees and cliffs without difficulty.
The ringtail is known by many names including cacomistle, raccoon fox, and civet cat. In California they are often called “miner’s cats.” Miners and settlers often caught ringtails and placed them in their frontier mines and cabins to control rodents. They quickly figured out that the ringtail is gifted with an innate mousing ability even greater than that of the house cat. As ringtails became associated with mining operations, the name miner’s cat seemed to fit.
As part of this year’s “Fisher Frenzy” fisher (Martes pennanti) capture, staff from the Wildlife Investigations Lab and the Integral Ecology Research Center (IERC) also examined other mesopredators that made their way into the traps. Gray foxes (Urocyon cinereargentus), Western spotted skunks (Spilogale gracilis), and ringtails were caught in addition to fishers.
With funding from the US Fish and Wildlife Service Section 6 Conservation Grant program, the WIL has partnered with IERC to study disease exposure in other small carnivores that share habitat with conservation-vulnerable fishers. Our findings will enable us to better understand health threats to forest carnivores.