Ringtails are roughly the size of a small domestic cat and were known in the Old West as “miner’s cats,” though they are not actually felines. Miners and settlers would invite ringtails into their cabins and camps as companions to keep the areas rodent-free. Ringtails are nocturnal and fierce hunters, ambushing and killing their prey with a bite to the neck. Solitary animals, they mark their territory with feces and urine and defend it from all other ringtails. When threatened, the hair on their long, bushy, black-and gray-ringed tails bristles and they arch them over their heads, making the animals appear larger. They can also emit a high, shrill scream and a long, plaintive, high-pitched call to warn off predators such as bobcats, coyotes, and great horned owls.
Ringtails are excellent climbers and can easily scale vertical walls, trees, cacti, caves, and even mine shafts. The ankle joints on their back legs can rotate 180 degrees to grip trees as they descend to the ground, using their tails for balance. Expert rock climbers, ringtails can scale small crevices by “chimney stemming,” or pressing all four feet on one wall and their back against the other to shinny up or down. While not climbing, they can also use the semi-protractile claws on their forepaws for digging.
Ringtails live in the deserts, shrublands, forests, and rocky outcroppings of North America and can be found in Oregon, California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Baja California, and Mexico.
These omnivores primarily hunt rats, mice, rabbits, birds, lizards, and snakes. They also eat insects, fruit, berries, seeds, and vegetable matter.
A ringtail’s tail is about the same length as its body—about one foot. Adults weigh roughly two pounds. In the wild, ringtails live up to seven years, but in human care, they can live between 10 and 15 years.