There it was—a raccoon-like animal with a long black and whitetail banded tail. It moved effortlessly, making its way through the rocks and crevices of its habitat, occasionally stopping and sensing the air for potential enemies or prey. Its face was masked-like, somewhat like its raccoon near relative. The ringtail, as it is known, was very noticeable to the observer when it moved with its tail carried out straight, barely clearing the ground surface; motionless, it blended almost unseen into the natural setting of its rugged habitat, camaflaged against the dark and light rocks and vegetation. The long tail, as long again as nose to hind limbs, almost seemed like excess baggage pulling along from behind. To me, the mystery of the ringtail is—how its long gaudy black and white tail—so obvious when moving—can fit into natural surroundings almost invisibly when stationery.
Scientists know them as Bassariscus astutus; most others call them Ringtails. Somewhat similar to the American marten, ringtails have 7 -8 distinctively annulated black and white alternating rings forming their tails. The tail is about the same length as entire head to body length. The ringed tail is key to immediate identification.* There are two living species, although B. astutus is the predominant form in North America with 6 subspecies. It belongs to the family Procyonidae and is a sister genus to the raccoon, genus Procyon. The ringtail ranges from southern Mexico as far north mainly to California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado and Kansas. The head has patches of white or light pelage, the eyes are large and ringed with black or dark brown fur altogether forming a rather striking “mask.”
Unique features of ringtail physiology is the ability of modified kidneys to concentrate urine, among the highest known in the order Carnivora. This allows the animal to maintain water balance for days even in the absence of open water, upon which it ultimately depends. They have no caecum, the first portion of the small intestine. Ringtails have paired glands near the anus which secrete a pungent, cream-colored secretion reminiscent of sister Procyonid odiferous secretions.
A seasonal molt begins in late summer and is completed by late fall. Breeding season is from February through May. The gestation period is from 51 to 54 days after which 1 to 4 young are born. Newborn young are blind until 21 to 34 days and weaned at 10 weeks and transition to solid food at 30 to 40 days. Excrement of young is consumed by the female until they transition to take solid food. During this transition time, young are known to lick saliva from inside mother’s mouth, perhaps serving to provide additional fluids. Play may occur at 45 days which consists of batting one another with forepaws, then pouncing on each other. They walk well and are fully furred at 6 weeks and climb at 8 weeks. Young begin to forage with their mothers at 60 to 100 days. Sexual maturity occurs at the end of the second year. In captivity, longevity may average 12 to 14 years. Vocalization is a spitting, explosive bark at about 10 weeks, evolving from earlier infant metallic squeaks.
Ringtails occur in a variety of habitats, from broken semiarid country to mountain pine forests to desert and dry tropical areas. Dens are most often in boulder piles, rock crevices, hollow trees, brush piles, under roots, within burrows dug by other animals and even in rural buildings. They often move from den to den after 1 to 3 days. Females with new litters moved their young from den to den after just 10 days after giving birth.
Ringtails are omnivorous, though prefer animal matter. Preferred foods include arthropods/insects, mammals and fruits. Diverse food kinds have been documented including rabbits, squirrels, carrion, various kinds of plants, birds, lizards, snakes, frogs and fish. They often seek food in rural and urban areas and are harvested as a fur bearer. In the 1980s in Texas alone, harvest was estimated at 75,000 to 100,000 ringtails annually. Many states legally protect the ringtail, though many animals fall victim to traps set for other furbearers.
Ringtails are nocturnal, that is, they are active mostly during the night and at dusk. Major predators or enemies include the great horned owl, coyotes, raccoons and bobcats. Some carcasses of predator-killed ringtails were found that were not fed upon, probably due to strong flavor of the flesh. Diseases such as feline and canine panleucopenia, rabies and parasites may be prominent in controlling their population numbers. Fleas and lice are known ectoparasites while cestodes and nematodes are known internal parasites.
*Poglayen-Neuwall, Ivo and Dale E. Toweill. 1988. Bassariscus astutus. Mammalian Species, No. 327.