As I prepare for a few presentations on my beloved ringtails, I decided I should share the love of the most precious and overlooked animal with my bloggies. My thesis for my Masters in Biology (Wildlife) involved habitat use research on mesocarnivores with an emphasis on ringtails. I completed this work from January 2006- May 2009.
Number one thing to make sure everyone knows… Ringtails are not cats. They do have several common names such as cacomistle, civet cat, ringtail cat and miner cat. Although some of their old common names have the word cat in them they are not cats. They are in the same family as racoons. Ringtails are incredibly agile inhabiting steep cliff faces and adapting to that environment with unique biological characteristics. They have semi-retractile claws and can rotate their paws 90 degrees which allow them to perform acrobatic moves such as scaling steep cliff cracks and amazing standing long jumps.
To get a quick feel of their agility view this six second video of a ringtail being released out of one of my traps. They are so quick on their feet. Remember this was 2008, this video quality was as good as it got for me.
Ringtails inhabit most of the desert southwest in arid areas. Their kidneys are adapted to not require as much water as other animals and most live within 800 meters of a water source. They are omnivores feasting on berries and small vertebrates. I once watched a ringtail dine on juniper berries for about two minutes…awesome! They are strictly nocturnal and it seems that even full moons are too much light for them to be active in. Birds of prey and larger carnivores are their main predators.
They are currently not a threatened species although that may be because of the habitat they live in and their adaptation to urban living. Most people don’t build on or destroy the steep cliff sides that ringtails inhabit. Also, as more and more houses are built, ringtails have been found in roofs and scat has been found around urban settings. Today on a walk around my neighborhood, at one point I smelled ringtail poop. Weird, I know, but ringtails have a musk to their scat and once you know that smell, you won’t forget it.
My research was conducted in Palo Duro Canyon State Park, which is the second largest canyon in the United States, behind the Grand Canyon. The presence of ringtails in the canyon was questionable and it was my mission to find out if they even existed in the area. After months of unsuccessful trapping I finally caught my first ringtail! It was a momentous day as when I first started I had lots of help, but as time went by with no captures, I was by myself hiking and setting traps in the hot, unforgiving canyon. So when I caught my first ringtail, I was on a cliff, just me and her, a moment I will never forget. Soon after I figured out the tricks and was on my way to several captures.
The above picture is of the first ringtail captured that I was prepared with a radio transmitter. He was young and I never captured another as young as him. Because he still had some baby fur, I called him “Fluffy”.
The radio telemetry begins. As I began capturing more ringtails, I began outfitting them with small radio transmitters so I could release them and then come back at night and determine their locations using a GPS. The process was not easy. Setting traps in remote canyon areas required a 4-wheeler and small trailer and then just plain old physical work. I was extremely lucky to have many helpers (friends, family, undergraduates and my adviser) and I am thankful for all the effort and time they put in. If a trap is set, you have to be there in the early morning before the sun gets to hot to check the traps. Extremely hard if we were out doing radio telemetry on ringtails the night before.
Radio telemetry provided its own frustrations with signal bounce off the canyon walls and trying to stalk a secretive, sly, crafty animal like a ringtail! I swear they were laughing at me while they dove into cliffs and “disappeared”.
The project was to say the least a challenge. I decided to terminate the telemetry portion of my research due to ringtail mortality. In the literature, there is not much research done on ringtails, and what has been done has also had high mortality. These animals are unique, amazing and cute creatures that more information should be gathered on. Perhaps one day I will return to my ringtail friends.
The best part of the project was getting to know the animals so well. I could walk up to a trap and tell whether it was a male or female. Males and females have very slight characteristic differences and to a trained eye it became easy. I also became skilled at trapping. I had never trapped an animal before in my life and all of a sudden I was catching ringtails, raccoons, grey foxes and my nemesis skunks. My advisor is the king of skunks and can successfully release a skunk from a trap with just straight baby talk. I definitely did not possess those powers as I lost several shirts and gloves to my skunk friends and also was conveniently sprayed in the mouth one time. Fabulous.
I tried to keep this as short as possible but I could go on for days about my ringtails, so if you have any questions… ask away!
Check out some pics of the adventures below: