Bassariscus astutus (Ringtail)
Written by Greg T. Lewellen (Mammalogy Lab--Fall 2003)
Edited by Karah Gallagher and Jennifer Bailey
Map prepared by Greg T. Lewellen
The geographic distribution of the ringtail (Bassariscus astutus) in North America extends from the southern Mexican provinces of Guerrero, Oaxaca and Veracruz, were it overlaps with a similar species Bassariscus sumichrasti, to as far north as southern Oregon (Hall 1981). Ringtails are found throughout Mexico and the southwest US, including all of Texas. Ringtails can be found commonly in the majority of Arizona and in New Mexico (Findley et al. 1975). Distribution in Oklahoma is centered around the southwest Red River region. Northern boundaries are defined by accounts in eastern Oregon (Bailey 1974), most of California (Grinnell et al. 1937), southern and eastern Nevada (Hall 1981), southern Utah (Hall 1981), portions of western and southeastern Colorado (Armstrong 1972), from three counties in central Kansas (Bee et al. 1981), and portions of southern Arkansas and northern Louisiana (Choate et al. 1994).
Distribution within the state of Texas is centered on the Edwards Plateau, Hill Country, and Trans-Pecos regions. (Schmidly 1977; Davis and Schmidly 1994). Ringtails are uncommon in the lower Rio Grande and Coastal Plains regions (Davis and Schmidly 1994). Official sightings in the Llano Estacado-High Plains region are rare, with only four confirmed reports. (Davis and Schmidly 1994; Choate 1997).
Exact locations of sightings in the Llano Estacado – High Plains region are from Armstrong and Briscoe counties (Davis and Schmidly 1994), a male specimen from Howard County and a specimen from the Texas Tech University campus in Lubbock County (Choate 1997). The subspecies found in the Llano Estacado – High Plains region is Bassariscus astutus flavus (Choate 1997).
Photos courtesy Texas Parks & Wildlife © 2003
The ringtail most closely resembles the American marten (Martes americana) with exception of the long, annulated tail (Neuwall and Toweill 1988). The ringtail has been described as cat or fox-like in body size with short legs and an immense tail. It is distinguished from the similar-looking common raccoon (Procyon lotor) by its smaller size, slender body and longer tail striped only on the upper surface (Jones et al. 1985). Ringtails have a long, immense tail that is slightly longer than its body and head and is black tipped with alternating bands of black and white that merge into a white ventral stripe (Grinnell et al. 1937). Ringtail feet are semi-plantigrade and pentadactyl with claws that are short, straight and semi-retractable (Hall 1981). The muzzle is elongate and pointed with vibrissae that are black and up to 75 mm long (Grinnell et al. 1937). The eyes have a chestnut-brown iris with a round pupil, and the face is mask-like because of rings of brown and white around orbits. Pelage ranges from stony gray to golden tan with longer black-tipped guard hairs (Grinnell et al. 1937). The pelage is paler on the sides and darkest down the middle of the back. Studies on the influence of habitat on pelage indicate that a darker upper body is more common in northern populations (Dice and Blossom 1937). The under parts are white or pale buff, with large oval ears prominent (Bee et al. 1981).
The skull of the ringtail is elongate with light zygomatic arches. The range of measurements of adults from both sexes are: basilar length 68 to 75 mm, zygomatic breath 48 to 52 mm (Hall 1981). The dental formula of the ringtail is i 3/3 c 1/1 p 3/4 m 3/2 with a total of 40 teeth (Hall 1981).
External measurement ranges of ringtails are: total length 616 to 811mm, tail length 310 to 438mm, hind foot length 57 to 78mm, ear length to notch 44 to 50mm (Hall 1981) and mass 870 to 1500 grams (Davis and Schmidly 1994).
Food Habits: Ringtails are omnivorous, with their diets varying seasonally and geographically (Bee et al. 1981). An analysis of ringtail scat from the Edwards Plateau region of Central Texas indicate that plant matter accounted for 74% of all food items encountered. (Toweill and Teer 1977). Other food items were found when seasonally available, such as insects and arachnids (present in 32% of scats examined), small mammals (14%), and passerine birds (6%) (Toweill and Teer 1977). The most encountered plant material was juniper, hackberry, and Texas persimmon (Toweill and Teer 1977). The most encountered small mammals include white-ankled mice (Peromyscus perctoralis), cotton rats (Sigmodon hispidus), woodrats (Neotoma spp.), rock squirrels (Spermophilus variegatus), Mexican ground squirrels (Spermophilus mexicanus), eastern cottontail rabbits (Sylvilagus floridanus) and black-tailed jackrabbits (Lepus californicus) (Toweill et al. 1977). Ringtails rely on insects (36%), plants (25%) and mammals (16%) in the autumn; mammals (36%), birds (24%), insects (20%) and plants (17%) in the winter; mammals (32%), insects (32%), plants (17%), birds (7%), and reptiles (2.3%) in the spring; insects (57%), plants (16%), mammals (5%),birds (4%) and reptiles (2%) in the summer (Taylor 1954). There have also been reports of ringtails feeding on the nectar of century plant (Agave harvariana) in the desert southwest (Kuban and Schwartz 1985).
Reproduction: Although little work has been performed on ringtail reproduction in the High Plains region of Texas, work has been done elsewhere and will be assumed to relate to this region. The breeding season of ringtails is short, from about April until May, with some reports as early as February (Davis and Schmidly 1994; Neuwall and Toweill 1988). Gestation period is unknown, but may be 45-50 days (Davis and Schmidly 1994). Average number of young is three to four, with extremes observed at one and five (Richardson 1942; Bee et al. 1981). The young are born blind and at approximately 28 grams, with eyes opening at 22 to 24 days (Bee et al. 1981). Sexual maturity is attained at one year (Richardson 1942).
Behavior: Ringtails are strictly nocturnal and rarely active during the day (Grinnell et al. 1937, Kavanau 1971). Studies indicate no tendency towards monogamy but due indicate a weak social structure based upon territory (Trapp 1978). Perhaps the most unique behavioral trait of the ringtail is the wide range of vocalizations that have been observed. Vocalizations include metallic chirps, squeaks, whimpers, chitters, chucking, barks, and various growls (Willey and Richards 1981). In relation to the type of habitat that ringtails are found in, the ringtail hind foot can rotate 180 degrees, permitting head-first descends and increased climbing ability (Trapp 1972). Ringtails are highly adapted to climbing rocks and trees, as well as other movements such as “chimney stemming” between vertical walls, ricocheting off vertical surfaces and a very powerful leaping ability (Trapp 1972). Despite the fact that ringtails may be found in high elevations, no hibernation activity has been recorded. It has also been recorded that ringtails can achieve higher urine concentration than any other carnivore (Richards 1976).
Habitat: Ringtails are found in a variety of habitats centered around the semi-arid to arid climates of the west and southwest. The primary habitat preferred by ringtails is characterized by rocky or talus slopes with oak (Quercus spp.), pinyon pine (Pinus edulis) or juniper (Juniperus spp.) woodland (Neuwall and Toweill 1988; Davis and Schmidly 1994). Ringtails also may inhabit montane regions as long as rocky outcrops or slopes are present. The ringtail’s fondness for juniper berries may account for higher abundances in overgrazed pastures of the west (Taylor 1954). The habitat ringtails are most often associated with is rock (Davis and Schmidly 1994).
Denning behavior by ringtails is very informal and temporary. Observations in the Edwards Plateau region indicate that ringtails nest in any site, from cracks and crevices to hollow trees (Taylor 1954). Dens are seldom modified or occupied for longer than three days, often attributed to the fact that ringtails cover several hectacres a night in search of food (Toweill 1976). The usual behavior is to not return to a prior den, but to find and occupy a new den at a convenient location along the route. Home range sizes have been averaged at 43.4 ha for males and 20.3 ha for females (Toweill 1976). Minimum annual average population densities were estimated at 2.2 adults per square km on the Edwards Plateau of Texas (Toweill 1976).
Economic Importance for Humans:
The primary economic importance of the ringtail is as a fur-bearing animal, although this importance is insignificant today. Earlier reports of the trading of ringtail fur indicate that the fur is longer lasting than raccoon (Procyon lotor), and fairly attractive, running from grays to yellows (Grinnell et al. 1937). There is a record that during the last year of World War II (1945), the price of ringtail fur exceeded that legally set by the Office of Price Administration, simply due to the fact that the ringtail was not widely known by the administration, and therefore was not included in the list of ceiling prices designated for animals such as raccoons and minks. Ringtail fur sold for $10.00 a pelt during this year. Other economically important facts about ringtails include use by early miners in the Sierra Nevada of California as pets and rodent controllers.
Due primarily to the lack of sufficient information on the ringtail, conservation needs is as of yet unknown. Ringtails are recorded as doing fairly well in human-disturbed sites such as housing. Ringtails are still listed as a fur-bearing game animal in many states, including Texas. Conservation status should then be referred to as uncommon in locations such as their northern distributions and the Llano Estacado-High Plains region of Texas, and common in the southern distribution locations, such as central Texas and Mexico.
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