Digital painting of a ringtail Cat. Line drawing painted with photoshop.
he ringtail (Bassariscus astutus) is a mammal of the raccoon family (thus not actually a cat), native to arid regions of North America. It is also known as the ringtail cat, ring-tailed cat or miner’s cat, and is also sometimes mistakenly called a “civet cat” (after similar, though unrelated, cat-like omnivores of Asia and Africa). The ringtail is sometimes called a cacomistle, though this term seems to be more often used to refer to Bassariscus sumichrasti.
The ringtail is buff to dark brown in color with white underparts and a flashy black and white striped tail that has 14-16 white and black stripes, which is longer than the rest of its body. The claws are short, straight, and semi-retractable. The eyes are large and purple, each surrounded by a patch of light fur. It is smaller than a housecat, measuring 30–42 cm long with a tail of 31–44 cm and weighing 0.8–1.5 kg. Ringtails have occasionally been hunted for their pelts, but the fur is not especially valuable.
The ringtail is found in southern California, Colorado, eastern Kansas, Oklahoma, Oregon, Arizona, New Mexico, southern Nevada, Texas, Utah and throughout northern and central Mexico. Its distribution overlaps that of B. sumichrasti in the Mexican states of Guerrero, Oaxaca and Veracruz. It is found in rocky, desert as its habitat, where it nests in the hollows of trees or abandoned wooden structures. The ringtail is the state mammal of Arizona. It is also found in the Great Basin Desert. The Great Basin desert covers most of Nevada and over half of Utah, as well as parts of California, Idaho, and Oregon. The ringtail prefers to live in rocky habitats associated with water. These areas can include riparian canyons, caves, and mine shafts.
The ankle joint is flexible and able to rotate over 180 degrees, a trait helping make it an agile climber. Their considerable tail provides balance for negotiating narrow ledges and limbs, even allowing them to reverse directions by performing a cartwheel. Ringtails also can ascend narrow passages by stemming (pressing all feet on one wall and their back against the other or pressing both right feet on one wall and both left feet on the other), and wider cracks or openings by ricocheting between the walls.
Much like the common raccoon, the ringtail is nocturnal and solitary. But it is timid and seen much more rarely than raccoons. It is omnivorous, eating fruits, berries, insects, lizards, small rodents, and birds. Foxes, coyotes, raccoons and bobcats will prey upon ringtails. Hawks and Owls may attack the young. They produce a variety of sounds, including clicks and chatters reminiscent of raccoons. A typical call is a very loud, plaintive bark. As adults, these mammals lead solitary lives, generally coming together only to mate.
Ringtails mate in the spring. The gestation period is 45–50 days, during which the male will procure food for the female. There will be 2-4 cubs in a litter. The cubs open their eyes after a month, and will hunt for themselves after four months. They reach sexual maturity at ten months. The ringtail’s lifespan in the wild is about seven years.
The ringtail is said to be easily tamed, and can make an affectionate pet and effective mouser. Miners and settlers once kept pet ringtails to keep their cabins free of vermin; hence, the common name of “miner’s cat” (though in fact the ringtail is no more cat than it is civet). The ringtails would move into the miners’ and settlers’ encampments and become accepted by humans in much the same way that some early domestic cats were theorized to have done. At least one biologist in Oregon has joked that the ringtail is one of two species— the domestic cat and the ringtail— that thus “domesticated humans” due of that pattern of behavior.