The Cutest US Mammal You’ve Probably Never Seen

Meet the ringtail: the off-the-charts cute critter that could be hiding in your neighborhood.

Ring-tailed cat, miners cat, bassarisk, cacomistle; the ringtail (Bassariscus astutus) goes by many names. A ringtail by any name is just as cute.

As Rosemary Stussy, a retired Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist once put it, “on a scale of one to 10, their cuteness factor is a 15.”

“Cat” likely came into many of the common names for ringtails in part because ringtails are about the size of a house cat and in part because, as legend has it, gold rush era miners once enticed ringtails to live in their cabins as pet mousers.

But the ringtail is not a relative of the cat. And though its scientific name is based on an ancient Greek term for fox (βασσάρα), it is not a relative of the fox either. It is — as you may have guessed by the lovely long, ringed tail — more closely related to the raccoon. Both are members of the Procyonid family.

How to Spot a Ringtail                                                                         

You may know ringtails as a desert southwest species (state mammal of Arizona), but ringtails have a much wider range. They can be found all the way up the west coast into southwestern Oregon and northeast as far as Oklahoma.

Ringtails are nocturnal, solitary, and sparsely populated throughout their range — factors that can make them a challenge to see in the wild. Watch for them at night in trees and shrubs near riparian areas (close to rivers and streams). Around February through May, when ringtails are breeding, you could catch sight of them during daylight hours.

Ringtail in Arizona. Photo © Robertbody CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Ringtail in Arizona. © Robertbody CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Your best chance of seeing ringtails is at parks and preserves in the U.S. Southwest. Campsites in Grand Canyon National Park are frequently raided by crafty ringtails. Carlsbad Caverns National Park is another ringtail hotspot. Arizona has many birding lodges that put up an array of feeders, and these can attract other wildlife including ringtails. This is how I saw my first ringtails recently near Santa Rita Lodge in Madera Canyon (not to mention a coati and several bird species).

Though they are best known as shy creatures of forests, deserts and rocky areas, ringtails adapt well to living in disturbed areas and are frequently found near man-made buildings. You could have a ringtail living in your yard — they’ve rarely been known to show up in an attic.

“I found about six dens using radio-tracking equipment,” Stussy says. “None were up in trees. They were either down in a hole under a log or between boulders below the high-water mark of a lake – they would use the den in the summer when the water was low.”

If you can’t see a ringtail in the wild, it’s worth visiting a zoo to see one up close. The Oregon Zoo was home to ringtail kits last year.

Ringtail Tales


Ringtails are unusually carnivorous for a Procyonid. The bulk of their diet comes from animal matter (rodents, rabbits, squirrels, insects, birds, reptiles, frogs and carrion!). Ringtails do have a sweet tooth and eat fruit and nectar when available in the wild – Stussy attracted them to camera traps was with a mixture of raisins, jam, and a commercial “ringtail lure.”

Ringtails are sometimes prey to larger predators like great-horned owls, bobcats and coyotes.

When threatened the ringtail bristles the hair on its tail and arches it over its back to make itself appear larger (perhaps another reason for the cat comparison). As a final line of defense, ringtails will release a foul-smelling secretion and scream at a high pitch.

“They’re easily spooked,” says Stussy. “always jumping to the side. Their main predator is the great horned owl and I’ve seen video of a fisher making off with one in the snow. They have to watch out above and below.”

Ringtail at Phantom Ranch, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona. Photo © Pixelfugue (Own work) CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Ringtail at Phantom Ranch, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona. © Pixelfugue  CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Mammals from ringtails to lemurs to tigers have rings on their tails, but the evolutionary benefit of this trait is not fully understood. It is thought that arboreal, nocturnal mammals like the ringtail might use their tails for communication. Some also hypothesize that it is a kind of camouflage or at least a distraction so that if predators do attack a ringtail, they are more likely to catch the readily visible tail, missing vital organs and giving the ringtail a chance to escape.

Ringtails do posture with their tail. Stussy saw in camera trap footage that ringtails sometimes raise their tail like a skunk in what looks like an aggressive gesture or arch it prettily over their back.

“They use their tail like a squirrel for balancing,” Stussy explains. “They can climb like crazy.”

This ringtail has found a good den spot in a tree. Photo © Daniel Neal, CC BY 2.0
This ringtail has found a good den spot in a tree. Photo © Daniel Neal, CC BY 2.0

Ringtails are top notch acrobats. In addition to the help from their tails, they have semi-retractable claws to get a good grip on rocks or tree branches and their hind feet can rotate at least 180 degrees – allowing them to quickly climb head-first down trees and rock faces.

Other incredible climbing behaviors include “chimney stemming” (i.e. pressing their feet against one wall and their back against another like the Grinch climbing up a chimney), “ricocheting” like a video game character bouncing back and forth between more distant walls, and “power leaping” accurately across large distances.

Conservation Needs

The IUCN classifies ringtails as least concern for conservation because of their wide distribution and ability to adapt to human inhabited areas. However, there is limited information on population densities and trends across their range, which makes it difficult to assess conservation needs.

“What is their range? Is it expanding or contracting? It would take a lot of effort to find out. Their home ranges are very small,” Stussy explains. “It needs more work like a lot of things. I hate to think of ringtails going the way of the fisher and nobody’s even looking at them to know it.”

ODFW biologist Rosemary Stussy takes measurements on a ringtail before fitting it with a radio collar. Photo © ODFW
ODFW biologist Rosemary Stussy takes measurements on a ringtail before fitting it with a radio collar. Photo © ODFW

Efforts are underway in Oregon to improve methods of assessing ringtail density as part of the Oregon Conservation Strategy. Stussy’s research initiated an effort to create a consistent ringtail monitoring protocol for Oregon using camera traps. Progress has been slow in part because it is currently unclear whether a low number of sightings in an area is a sign that there are low numbers of ringtails or that the protocol has failed for some other reason (like bears stealing the ringtail bait).

“My work generated a lot of interest,” Stussy says. “One article in the newspaper led to about a hundred calls from people who wanted to report seeing them.”

One promising area for future ringtail research is citizen science. If citizens could capture an image of a ringtail and report the sighting to a centralized database, that would provide far more data for the range and abundance of ringtails in the US than biologists are currently able to capture on their own.

There is not yet, to my knowledge, a dedicated ringtail citizen science project. In the meantime, you can report your ringtail (and other nature) sightings to iNaturalist.

Published on

Join the Discussion

Join the Discussion

Please note that all comments are moderated and may take some time to appear.


  1. Carrie says:

    I live in the very middle of Mexico, in San Miguel de Allende. Last night, August 29th, a Bassariscus astutus/ring-tailed cat peered down on me from my roof. We watched each other for at least 20 minutes. Adorable it was, constantly making a clicking sound, then one sharp screech that sounded like an egret fighting, then back to the clicking sound. I had no idea they were here. My roof is about 32′ high, wonder how it got up there. I was on a terrace, about 8′ below it.

  2. Judy Ekstrom says:

    I thin I have 3 in my backyard. However they are taller, don’t have the ring around their eyes. I live in Canyon Lake, Texas. I’ve called the game warden hopefully to get them to a less inhabited area.

  3. Betsy Bradshaw says:

    I read, enjoyed and learned from your article. I am a licensed rehabber in El Dorado County, California. Approximately 10 days ago I received an infant ring tailed cat. I am guessing she is around 8 weeks old.

    The information I am seeking concerns the plausibility of her release. I would also LOVE to contact Dr. Stussy.


  4. Gloria Grubbs says:

    My husband just saw an animal we’ve never seen before. His discretion of it led me to look up pictures trying to find such a thing. When I pulled up a picture of the ringtail cat he said that’s it! We live in Kentucky, the Fort Knox Area is it possible that’s what he saw?

  5. animals says:

    its so cute but there is some other cute Mammal like fennec fox
    or silver fox . and some other kind of birds

  6. Zanetta Boughan says:

    I haven’t seen a Ringtail before. Once I found a tarantula in our backyard. We have four chuahua’s named Elsa, Anna, Olaf and Dulce the mother

  7. zboughan boughan says:

    Ringtails are so cute! They look like a skunk. I wonder what their pee smells like?

  8. Conny Young says:

    I am a volunteer at a state park in NM. Ring tails were pooping in the engine area in my truck. For fear that they would damage the wires, I decided to trap them with a live animal trap and transport them to another part of our park about 2 miles away. I have trapped 7 so far. I may be trapping the same one over and over. Any suggestions as to how to mark them for identification?

  9. Sherri Schar says:

    I live in Trinity Co. Northern California and have just this past week (have a heart) trapped two young ringtails. I have had chickens for ten years and have never seen or caught ringtails. A friend three miles up our road at approximately 3200 feet has seen several ringtails over the years. I live at 2500 feet.
    We wanted to keep them but have been told adults will kill our chickens so we released them in the forest four miles away. Over the ten years we have had chickens we have caught raccoons, striped skunks, spotted skunks, house cats ground squirrels and rats but these are just the cutest critters we have ever seen.

  10. Kristin Morales says:

    I came across this site when looking up information on ringtails. A couple nights ago I sat awake all night listening to something rummaging through my garden shed. The next morning I discovered a ringtail has taken up residence under the shed. We live in a planned community/subdivision surrounded by open flat prairie land on the outskirts of Prescott Valley Arizona. From what I have read this isn’t really their preferred habitat. However we have had no monsoon activity this year and are in drought status. We have a small pool for our dog that we refill every day and my next door neighbors have a pond/water feature in their garden. We recently evicted a pack rat from under our shed so there was already a path dug for easy access and we have a plentiful supply of field mice and lizards in our yard due to our proximity to the open prairie. It’s just so unusual to see one of these guys here. He is very noisy at night and we aren’t sure how it would turn out if our dog comes into contact with the ringtail so we are trying to find info on how to lure it into a live trap and then where in this area we should let him loose. We live near several lakes that have rocky shores. It seams that would be well suited for him.

  11. David Conrad says:

    Love it

  12. Diana G Moorhead says:

    Love it

  13. Marilyn Skipper says:

    Is this possibly a kind of ringtail? IMG_4396.jpeg