By Andrew Stuart
They’re among the most secretive of West Texas creatures. You could spend a lifetime exploring the Southwest – and never catch a glimpse of one.
Ringtails are often referred to as “cats.” In fact, they’re a member of the raccoon family. Nocturnal, solitary, they’re finely adapted to the rugged terrain in which they live.
Ringtails are creatures of arid North America. Their range stretches from the Llano Estacado and the Trans-Pecos to southern California and Mexico. The animal’s scientific name – Bassariscus astutus – means “clever little fox.” The name gives a clue to the ringtail’s appearance.
Its pointed muzzle and long whiskers are fox-like indeed – and, like a fox, the ringtail has a long tail, the secret to its balancing skills. The tail is ringed in 14 to 16 black and white stripes. A mature ringtail is two to four feet long – the tail makes up half of that length. With buff to dark brown fur, a grown ringtail may weigh just over three pounds – a little smaller than a house cat.
Small and cute, but don’t be deceived. The ringtail is a skilled hunter and forager in the West Texas wilds.
Under cover of darkness, it pursues its game, and dines on fruits, leaves and seeds.
Cinimin Kofford is a ranger at Guadalupe Mountains National Park.
“They’re omnivores, so they’ll pretty much eat anything that’s the right size,” Kofford said. “So this could be lizards, snakes, berries, wood rats, mice.”
Canyons and caves are prime ringtail habitat. The animals favor rocky terrain – preferably with reliable water.
As climbers, ringtails have few peers. Their anatomy allows them to move swiftly among trees and cliffs – whether in pursuit of prey, or in flight from predators like coyotes, bobcats and mountain lions.
“They’re such agile creatures – they’re little rock climbers,” Kofford said. “What they can do is they can stand between cliff faces and small cracks – they can climb up in them. They have semi-retractable claws, so those go back and give them a little bit more friction. Also, they have this ankle rotation, where they can turn their ankles 180 degrees, so they can climb down those steep surfaces. And they ricochet from wall to wall, and they can do these cartwheels.”
They have large eyes and ears, and their hearing and vision are superb. White rings around the eyes reflect moonlight, improving the ringtail’s night vision.
Ringtails are the true West Texas loners. They interrupt their solitude for less than two months each year – for the breeding season.
“In the springtime it’ll become time to mate,” Kofford said. “The female ringtail is in heat for less than 24 hours. They come together, and for that amount of time, the male is providing food for the female, and then they’re gone, they have their separate territories again.”
There are two to four cubs to a litter. The young can hunt on their own at four months. They reach sexual maturity – and disperse to find their own hunting grounds – at 10 months.
While ringtails are reclusive by nature, early settlers discovered that the animals could be domesticated – and could even make affectionate pets. Miners found that if they provided a dark, warm spot for a ringtail to sleep during the day, the animal would rid the miner’s cabin of rodents at night. This frontier arrangement produced one of the ringtail’s common names: the “miner’s cat.”
In the wild, ringtails may spend the daytime hours in a tree hollow or burrow. They rotate among resting spots in their territory.
“They live in dens,” Kofford said, “and they typically won’t stay in the same area for more than three days. They can occupy little crevasses in the rock, little dens dug below the surface, or even if there’s an abandoned house, they’ll take over that.”
Ringtails mark out their territory – with piles of scat. Kofford has seen these tell-tale markers in the Guadalupes.
“I went up McKittrick Canyon just about a week ago,” she said, “and it was just bright orange – every so often you’d see them, and you could see the seeds in them. You could definitely tell it was ringtail.”
A pile of colorful scat may be the most you see of a ringtail. But you can be sure that these agile creatures are prowling the West Texas night.