Personal sightings of animals rarely seen in the wild have a way of making permanent impressions. Rare is not the same as rarely seen. Ocelots are rare; bobcats are rarely seen. But glimpsing a rarely seen animal can be especially astonishing when the animal is both secretive and gorgeous. Imagine you work for Texas Fish and Game and you’re out walking through the rocky wildlands of the Edwards Plateau (somewhere, say, between Mason and Brady). Of a sudden it materializes out of a hole in the base of an old live oak stump and sits atop like it owns the world. There, before you, sits a small, devastatingly adorable foxlike critter with a round face, large cupped ears, and a stunning, raccoon-like tail. Its bushy tail is flattened and nearly as long as the head and body combined, with alternating black and white rings. Talk about unforgettable. . .this would be a “ringtail experience!” And most Texans have never had one.
While often mistaken for cats, ringtails are actually a member of the raccoon family. Not only are ringtails mostly nocturnal, they are notoriously skittish and shy. Even though they are distributed statewide, they are most often found in the Texas Hill Country and the Trans Pecos. Its uncommon to find them in the lower Rio Grande and Coastal Plains of southern Texas. In woodland areas like ours, they den in hollow trees and logs (and sometimes in buildings).
Ringtails live all throughout the Great Basin Desert (Nevada, Utah, California, Idaho, and Oregon) as well as the Sonoran Desert in Arizona (they are the official mammal of Arizona), and the Chihuahuan Desert in New Mexico, Texas and northern Mexico. They especially like heights and rocks. They find their homes in rock piles, stone fences, talus slopes, canyon walls, caves and old mine shafts. Ringtails are expert climbers, capable of scaling vertical walls to reach the most protected crevices, crannies, and hollows. It’s no wonder, then, that west Texas and the southwestern U.S. is a perfect match.
As athletes, if there were such a thing as animal Olympics, ringtails would make the team hands down. It all starts with physiology. Semi-retractable claws serve as tiny little tenterhooks capable of snagging footholds on the slickest surfaces. Climbing in tight spaces, be it up or down, is greatly enhanced by having flexible ankle joints which rotate over 180 degrees. This means ringtails can boogie down a wall, head first, just as easily as they climb straight up. Then there’s that beautiful tail. Long and graceful, the tail provides balance for teetering on narrow ledges and limbs and can even allow them to reverse directions by performing an aerial cartwheel. Now that’s athletic! In rock climbing, there’s a maneuver known as “stemming,” and ringtails can do it in their sleep. This is when the ringtail presses all feet on one wall with their back against the other or presses both right feet on one wall and both left feet on the other while scooting along. They can even negotiate wider cracks or openings by ricocheting between the walls! Gymnastic score? A perfect 10!
Now about that incredible tail. Long, bushy and striking, at a hurried glance, it will be the one dominant feature you notice. Ringed tails are somewhat uncommon in the animal world. Raccoons have them, tigers have them, and so do lemurs. The evolutionary benefit of this trait is still being debated. Some experts believe that arboreal, nocturnal mammals—like lemurs, coati-mundis, and raccoons—use them to communicate. To others, the more likely hypothesis is a type of distraction. If predators do attack a ringtail, they are more likely to first get a mouthful of readily visible tail, missing vital organs and giving the ringtail a chance to escape. It’s possible, some theorize, that the distinctive rings could even be a form of nighttime camouflage. No matter—even if none of these are true—the tail is a much-used appendage; it’s not just for show. Game camera footage confirms that ringtails will raise their tail like a skunk when surprised, or when they are being aggressive.
Aside from their pointy little ears and pretty whiskered face, ringtails have an amazing resemblance to ordinary house cats. Some people wrongly refer to them as ringtail “cats.” They’re not related, of course, but after finishing a tasty meal, ringtails will engage in luxurious grooming while sitting on their hindquarters—just like domestic cats. They even lick their forepaws and then use them to wipe and clean their ears and face. They’re also quite good mousers. Another common name for ringtails is “miner’s cat.” This evolved from the early days of mining in the west and southwest. Ringtails were favorites of miners and pioneers who cut holes in boxes and placed the boxes near the stove in a cabin or home to keep the animal warm during the day, when they were sleeping. At night, the ringtails would sneak out of their boxes and feed on the mice and rats that dared to enter the homes—exactly what their keeper hoped.
Ringtail diets are pretty standard for nocturnal omnivores. Like most of us, they enjoy native fruits and berries when they can get them, but when pickin’s are scarce, they climb the food chain from grasshoppers and crickets to frogs, toads, small snakes, rodents, and culminate with birds (they’re good hunters). If groceries are really scarce, they’re not beneath feasting on road kill. For the most part, a ringtail’s territory ranges anywhere from 50-100 acres. Male territorial boundaries are greater than for females, but, of course, intersect with several females to ensure a target-rich love life. Most of the time ringtails live alone but may share a den or be seen mutually grooming one another occasionally. Ringtails can go for very long periods without water, given that they survive on moisture derived from their food alone and have urine which is more concentrated than just about any other animal studied, an adaption that allows for maximum water retention and life in the desert.
Breeding season for ringtails is springtime; gestation lasts 45-50 days only, during which the male does all the food shopping for the mother-to-be. Most litters produce two to four babies (referred to as cubs or kits), which are born covered in short, pale hair, unable to see or hear. But they make up for these shortcomings quickly. The cubs open their eyes after a month, and will hunt for themselves after only four months when young ringtails have developed their adult coloring. They reach sexual maturity at ten months.
For such a demure and shy animal, all ringtails have a wide and loud variety of calls. When attacked they emit a high-pitched scream, like a banshee (similar to skunks, ringtails emit a pungent musk when startled or threatened). Adults also let others know what they want with a loud and explosive bark or a long, high-pitched wail. Young ringtails communicate their desires with a series of chirps, squeaks or whimpers.
The mating rituals of adult ringtails include lavish and sophisticated patterns of urine and feces near the dwellings of both male and female. While this may not represent classical art-deco taste, in the higher rock-strewn regions, you make do with what you got! These markings act as warnings to deter competition and as a siren song to attract the opposite sex. Life in the wild for a healthy ringtail can reach up to seven years. Their main predators tend to come from the sky: great horned owls and red-tailed hawks.
There are stories about photographers stalking snow leopards for months above 18,000 feet in the Himalayas without ever spotting one. While ringtails are not endangered or rare, and Texas is a long way from the Himalayas, a quest to see a ringtail in the wild can be a difficult and forlorn task. Chance does not barter with desire—but it does bend a little bit for thoughtful effort. Looking in the right habitat at dusk or nighttime with a generous dose of patience is the best anyone can do. With a little luck you may be rewarded with one of the most wonderful encounters in Great Nature. Most of us, however, will live out our days without ever seeing a ringtail in the flesh. And if you are one those unfortunate souls, a source of redemption might be the make-believe world of animal mascots. Because they are so cute, in Texas, the Redbud Elementary School in Round Rock calls themselves the Ringtails. Lupe is the ringtail mascot for Guadalupe Mountains National Park east of El Paso, while Ringo is the mascot for the Texas Stars hockey team in Cedar Park near Austin. It’s not just mimicry; it’s another way to pay tribute to the cutest mammal you’ll never see.
By Larry Gfeller