The Cutest US Mammal You’ve Probably Never Seen

March 15, 2017


August 25, 2020

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This Oregon ringtail denned with her juvenile offspring for four months. Photo © Jonny Armstrong

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.

Lisa Feldkamp

Lisa loves all things citizen science and enjoys learning about everything that goes on four legs, two wings or fins - she even finds six and eight-legged critters fascinating at a safe distance. She has a PhD in Classical Literature and Languages from the University of Wisconsin - Madison and enjoys reading Greek and Roman literature or talking about mythology in her spare time. More from Lisa

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  1. Dave Wyatt, who teaches Field Biology at Sacramento City College, has been studying the ringtails in the Sutter Buttes north of Sacramento for decades, following in the footsteps of Gene R. Trapp. Their population density there is the greatest ever recorded and their home ranges the smallest, indicating an abundance of food. Native mistletoe is an important staple food, consumed 10 months out of the year. I recognize one den site in a photo in this article from a great talk Dave gave last week at our California Native Plant Society local chapter.

  2. I grew up in southwest Oregon, later lived in the Colorado Rockies, and have spent a lot of time hiking and camping through out much of this animal’s range– but I have never seen one! I do remember my grandfather talking about seeing them on their small farm in the foothills of the Siskiyou Mountains along the Oregon/California border. He described them vividly, and I recognized the animal immediately (pretty hard to get that one wrong!). The first thing that popped into my mind when I saw your photo was “civet cat”, which is what he called them. But when I looked up civet cat, it is an Asian animal that doesn’t look at all like the bandtail, and that name doesn’t appear on your list of alternative names. Then I looked at the range map you linked to, and it had civet cat as one of the names. My grandfather was born in Kansas in a family with southern roots. Perhaps that’s where he picked up the name.

    Now I am so intrigued that I want to go visit a friend of mine who still lives in the mountains in that area, and hang out in the dark hoping for a glimpse! If I weren’t several decades past the age to do this kind of thing, I think I’d spend all my time doing population studies on this little cutie! (Though my friend, same age as me, is a retired naturalist/ranger/biologist. Hmmm….)

  3. I live in Oreogn and haven’t seen any ringtails here, but I had an encounter with one in a state park just outside St. George in the southwest corner of Utah. A friend and I were tent-camping there and forgot to put cooked meat away in the cooler. In the middle of the night, a ringtail feasted on what we left on the picnic table. I couldn’t see it very well with my headlamp, except for the ringed tail.

  4. To the “youngsters” who read this , it may seem like ancient history, but in 1971 I saw photos taken at the summit of Mount Diablo in Contras Costa County, California of two ringtails. It is the last “verified” siting I am aware of from that State Park. I have asked many people about sighting them. Most are not even aware the cute little beastie even lived in the area. Because of their secretive nature it is probable they still inhabit the area but I would love to get involved with a group setting up lures and cameras to see if this fascinating creature is still hanging out.

  5. I saw ringtails a couple of times while working at the Grand Canyon, Sneaky guys would get into the restaurants.

  6. Blast! I stayed at Santa Rita Lodge in Madera Canyon and the only mammals I saw were White-tail deer & Cotton Rats.

    1. Feb / March seemed like a good time to go for mammal sightings, though there was probably also some luck involved. The birding is supposed to be better in the summer. I saw a lot of cool birds in winter, but I didn’t see many hummingbirds while I was there – there were one or two broadbills. Some others saw a magnificent hummingbird, but I wasn’t at the feeders at the right time to see it.

  7. I saw one while driving at night in SW Oregon a few years ago up above the Illinois River just on the border of the large Biscuit fire close to Cave Junction. I have spent a lot of time in the woods and that was my first sighting of one. My dad used to spend a lot of time going in and out of the old gold mines back in the late 60’s and early 70’s along the Rouge River and he said he saw them frequently inside of those. One of the mines I remember was the Almeda mine that he saw them in.

  8. I’ve not seen any in Oregon yet but saw them several times in extreme northern California–once a mother with young ones (Trinity County).

  9. Great to see photos of these little raccoon cousins! Saw them last on a Colorado River trip in the Grand Canyon about 30 years ago. They may be shy, but when it comes to food or trash they are persistent

  10. I think Ring tail cats are a beautiful so called creature I wish we could find them in the North East As of close to Wisconsin area.Especially in the camping area of the forest of Wis. I’de love to be able to see one up close.They kind of favor’s lemur’s to me or a smaller raccoon family member.

  11. In 2014 my girlfriend lived in Northern New Jersey next to an expansive wilderness area, High Mountain Park Preserve. The Park is a protected area in the Preakness Range of the Watchung Mountains in Wayne, New Jersey, it comprises 1,153 acres of woodlands and wetlands owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy. When I visited on there on three or four occasions we spotted these creatures and at first had no clue whatsoever what this mammal could be! The huge tail and big eyes were unmistakeable. We knew it was definitely no cat and with those eyes, no raccoon either! Honestly was an amazing site! After researching and finding photos of the ringtale, we are 100% positive we had spotted these rare creatures and continued to see them on occasion, honestly it could have been the same one, who knows. Everything we read insisted the habitat that was thought to be very far from this region, with Manhattan only 17 miles away! The ringtails were on the property of a densely populated townhouse community, perhaps someone was feeding them. Like raccoons, they certainly must know where to find a good meal. I’m so amazed that somehow these creatures managed to make their way to Wayne, NJ…but there they were. Wish I had been able to get a photo but we only saw them at night.

    1. If it was a ringtail, it could have gotten caught on a truck headed there and then escaped into the area when the truck stopped – there was one found in a store in a part of Oregon where they aren’t usually found and it is thought that it got there on a truck making a delivery.

  12. Thanks for such an informative article on an interesting American species most Americans don’t even know about.

  13. What a beautiful species. Thank you for this article, the pictures and the video. Beautiful creatures!

  14. Are they in Texas? One night about two years ago, I was out driving and slammed my breaks because I thought I had just seen a ring-tailed lemur on the side of the road….by the time I turned around it was gone. I live in a small town west of San Antonio Texas.

  15. I have a ringtail in my yard in Tubac AZ. He is so cute. I put out some blueberries for him,is that a good thing?? I know we should not feed wild animals,but he is so cute. How do I encourage him to stay around?

    1. Hi Susan, I couldn’t find any information specific to ringtails, but from what I know more broadly, I would suggest creating habitat in your yard that’s attractive to ringtails. You might try joining Habitat Network, formerly Yardmap (http://content.yardmap.org/ ) and asking around the forums if anyone in your area has experience of what kinds of plants or features you might introduce that a ringtail would be attracted to.

  16. Dec 31, 2017. Just saw what I believe to be a ringtail cat in my yard. At approximately 9 PM there was a noise on my back deck. I went out with a spotlight and saw it. This was in the Lake Royale community near Bunn, NC.

  17. I work for the Army Corps of Engineers at Cochiti Lake in New Mexico. The Ring-tail cat is one of our native species here at the campsites. I haven’t seen any, but campers have described encounters with them to me. I am looking forward to seeing them.

  18. I saw 2 of these in Southern Il. Marion Ill. in Sept. we live on 14 acres.

  19. hi, I’m from Tasmania and have just seen a creature similar to these on a program. However, there were differences. The animal similar to our possum or these ringtails had almost snow leopard type markings. Can you shed some light as to the animals species. I’d appreciate it cheers.

    1. Hi Elisha… was the program on Australian wildlife? The only possum-like Aussie mammal that I can think of with “snow leopard type” markings would be the common spotted cuscus!

  20. Saw one run across the road and we got a good look at him when he went up the bank on the side of the road. Never knew we had such a creature here in San Diego, this was on Boulder Creek Rd between mile marker 4-5. We couldnt believe what we saw and we got home looked it up on the net, probably never see one again.

  21. Couple of things: 1) my son had a ringtail stow away when he was canyoneering in southern Utah last spring, not realizing till he got home to Boulder, Colorado. Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife interviewed him for a story the ran in the July/August issue of Colorado Outdoors. I’ll send you the story if you’ll provide an email so I can attach it.
    2) I’m working on a piece for a writing contest which requires using the collective noun for a group of animals – but I can’t track down the name of a group of ringtails (tho I understand they are somewhat solitary – maybe they don’t have a group name?) – if you know their group name, please share that with me!

  22. I really wanted to see a ringtailed. Seeing your photos really was wonderful. Thank you!! Well in the real world I have been blessed. One has made a home in my attic!! I heard him jump down and I immediately opened the door as it scampered away very slowly. I would of thought it would of ran quickly away as I opened the front door. I smiled as it walked away. Maybe it needed a place to have a baby so, I hope it likes our home. I live in Northern California in a very quaint town called Scott Bar, Ca. I have been blessed!!! Good Luck on your project!

  23. Does the ringtail have retractable claws? Does it have 4 toes in front and 5 toes in back? Thanks!

  24. My husband saw today three ringtails on our backyard and got kind of scared. They were peacefully seating next to our pool equipment in the remote section of the yard. Quite strange to see wildlife in rather busy neighborhood of Long Island very close to JFK airport.
    We occasionally spotted raccoon and opossum, but not ringtails family.

  25. We saw one hiking up Bright Angel Trail in Grand Canyon at night in the summer of 2017. The animal was hanging out on a post and did not move when it saw us so we got a great look at it. We had no idea what we were looking at and researched it immediately. Finding out it was the state animal of Arizona embarrassed us but after reading this article I realize we were super lucky to see one in the wild. Thanks for the information!

  26. We accidentally caught a Ring Tail in our garage, we set up a live trap to catch a rat, it was set up for about 3 week, 2 nights ago we caught this animal. It seemed pretty calm. We let it go in our property that borders Jackson State Forest in Fort Bragg, CA in Mendocino County. We have a riparian area on our land. I hope he sticks around!

  27. I have lived in Reno, NV since 1974 and have never heard of or seen ringtail cats until this summer. A month ago my neighbor saw 2 pair in different parts of the city. One pair she saw on our street. We live across the street from a good-sized pond which attracts a variety of wildlife so they found a good spot to live. We have seen 3 of them together on our security camera footage and last night I heard one barking. It will be fun having these new neighbors.

  28. 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.

  29. 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.

  30. 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?

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

  32. 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

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

  34. 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?

  35. Hello!
    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.


  36. 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.

  37. 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.