Bassariscus astutusringtail

Geographic Range

Bassariscus astutus can be found from southwestern Oregon and eastern Kansas south through California, southern Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Oaklahoma, Texas, Baja California and northern Mexico. Outlying records in Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama, and Ohio are likely the result of a ringtail habit of boarding railroad cars and being transplanted as a result (Nowak, 1999).


Ringtails can be found at elevations of up to 2900 m but are most common at elevations ranging from sea level to 1400 m. Ringtails utilize a variety of habitats. They prefer habitats with rocky outcroppings, canyons, or talus slopes and can be found in semi-arid country, deserts, chaparral, oak woodlands, pinyon pine woodlands, juniper woodlands and montane conifer forests. They also inhabit riparian habitats due to the increased food availability (Poglayen-Neuwall, 1988; 1990).

  • Range elevation
    0 to 2900 m
    0.00 to 9514.44 ft

Physical Description

Body mass of both sexes from throughout the geographic range of Bassariscus astutus ranges from 824 to 1,338 g. Head and body length is 305 to 420 mm and tail length is 310 to 441 mm. Shoulder height is about 160 mm. The upper body is buffy in color with a dark brown wash, and the underparts are a pale buff. The tail is bushy and has black and white rings (hence the common name of the species), much like a raccoon. The eyes are ringed by black or dark brown and set within buffy patches. The body is cat-like with a fox-like face and large oval ears. The claws of these animals are semi-retractable. The dental formula is: i 3/4, c 1/1, p 3/4, m 3/2 for a total of 40 teeth. The canines are well developed (Nowak, 1999; Poglayen-Neuwal, 1988).

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike
  • Range mass
    824 to 1,338 g
    29.04 to oz
  • Range length
    305 to 420 mm
    12.01 to 16.54 in


The mating system of these procyonids has not been reported.

Female ringtails are undergo a single estrous cycle in a season, usually mating from February to May. Heat usually lasts from 24 to 36 hours. The gestation period is short among the Procyonidae, and ranges from 51 to 54 days. Birth usually occurs in May or June with a litter size ranging from one to four.

Females choose a den in a rock crevice, boulder pile, or tree hollow in which they bear their young. Newborns are altricial with a mass of 25 g. Neonates open their eyes around one month of age. The young can take solid food at 30 to 40 days of age and are weaned at about 10 weeks. The female is mainly responsible for care, and forages with her young beginning when they are about 2 months old. The father is sometimes tolerated and may play with the young as they grow older. Ringtails reach sexual maturity in both sexes near 10 months of age (Poglayen-Neuwall, 1990).

  • Breeding season
    Breeding season occurs from February to May.
  • Range number of offspring
    1 to 5
  • Average number of offspring
  • Range gestation period
    51 to 54 days
  • Average weaning age
    10 weeks
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    10 months
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    Sex: female
    300 days
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    10 months
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    Sex: male
    300 days

Females are known to care for the young. They nurse the young for 10-12 weeks, and allow the young to accompany them when they forage. Males have been known to play with older offspring, and so may play some role in parental care, although no more than this has been documented. (Nowak, R., 1999)

  • Parental Investment
  • altricial
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female


The life expectancy of ringtails is about 7 years in the wild. A female kept in captivity reached the age of 16 (Poglayen-Neuwall 1988).


Ringtail activity occurs mostly at night and occasionally at dusk. Much of its time is spent foraging for food. After feeding, a ringtail grooms itself while sitting on its hindquarters in a manner similar to that of a cat. A ringtail licks its fur and forepaws, which it then uses to wipe its cheeks, snout and ears.

Bassariscus astutus is an excellent climber with several behavioral and physical locomotory adaptations. Ringtails can maneuver quickly and agilely among cliffs and ledges by richocheting from wall to wall. They can also climb in small crevices by chimney stemming (pressing all four feet on one wall and the back against the other). Rapid, headfirst, vertical descents are accomplished by rotating the hindfoot 180 degrees, allowing the pads of the feet and the claws to retain contact with the substrate.

The ringtail is solitary except during the mating season. Home ranges can be up to 136 ha depending on the availability of food and cover. Males generally have larger home ranges than females and home ranges of same-sex ringtails do not overlap (Trapp, 1972; Nowak, 1999; Poglayen-Neuwall, 1988;1990).

Communication and Perception

Ringtails have a variety of vocalizations. Adults can emit an explosive bark, a piercing scream, and a long, high-pitched call. Infants vocalize with metallic chirps, squeaks, and wimpers. Scent seems to be as important as vocalizations for communication within the species. B. astutus scent marks its home range territory by rubbing urine on the ground and on raised objects. During the mating season, ringtails increase their marking activity to attract a mate and deter competitors of the same sex (Nowak, 1999; Poglayen-Neuwall, 1988). It is likely that there is tactile communication between a mother and her offspring, as well as between mates.

Food Habits

Ringtails are omnivorous, but show a dietary preference for animal matter. Specific dietary items are largely selected as a function of their seasonal abundance. Principal animal matter food items include rodents, rabbits, squirrels, and insects, however, birds, lizards, snakes, frogs, and carrion are also eaten. Plant matter eaten includes acorns, mistletoe, juniper berries, persimmons, wild figs and other fruits. When available, B. astutus will also feed on nectar (Poglayen-Neuwall 1988,1990; Kuban and Schwartz, 1985).

  • Animal Foods
  • birds
  • mammals
  • amphibians
  • reptiles
  • carrion
  • insects
  • Plant Foods
  • seeds, grains, and nuts
  • fruit
  • flowers


When threatened, a ringtail will bristle the hair on its tail, arching the tail over its back towards its head, and thereby making itself appear larger. If captured, it screams a high pitched, penetrating sound and discharges a pungent, foul smelling secretion from the anal glands (Poglayen-Neuwall 1988,1990).

Ecosystem Roles

An important mid-size carnivore, the ringtail can help keep rodent populations under control.

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Ringtails are sometimes harvested for their fur, however, the coat is not of a very high quality and is generally used as trim only. In the 1976-77 trapping season, the United States produced 88,329 pelts, which sold for an average price of $5.50. The harvest of these animals peaked at about 135,000 in 1978-79 and has since declined. In the 1991-92 season only 5,638 skins were taken, and their average price was$3.62. Although ringtails now have protection in many states, many fall victim to traps set for other furbearing animals (Nowak, 1999; Poglayen-Neuwall, 1988).

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Ringtails cause little economic damage. Occasional domestic poultry are taken and an occasional orchard tree is plundered (Nowak, 1999; Poglayen-Neuwall, 1988).

  • Negative Impacts
  • crop pest

Conservation Status

This species has no special conservation status.

Other Comments

Living Bassariscus species are hardly dishtinguishable from Neocene forms. Hence, ringtails are sometimes called living fossils. The scientific name, Bassariscus astutus, is derived from bassar (fox), isc (little), and astut (cunning), cunning little fox. In Mexico, ringtails are often called "cacomistles" derived from the language of the Aztecs. In spanish, it means "nimble thief". Ringtails were sometimes kept about the homes of early American settlers and in prospectors' camps as companions and mousers, hence the name "miner's cat." They are reported to make fairly good pets if obtained while young. (Nowak, R., 1999; Poglayen-Neuwall, I, 1990; Poglayen-Neuwall,I., 1988)


Jeffrey Goldberg (author), Humboldt State University, Brian Arbogast (editor), Humboldt State University.



living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map


uses sound to communicate


young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


flesh of dead animals.


Found in coastal areas between 30 and 40 degrees latitude, in areas with a Mediterranean climate. Vegetation is dominated by stands of dense, spiny shrubs with tough (hard or waxy) evergreen leaves. May be maintained by periodic fire. In South America it includes the scrub ecotone between forest and paramo.


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate


active at dawn and dusk

desert or dunes

in deserts low (less than 30 cm per year) and unpredictable rainfall results in landscapes dominated by plants and animals adapted to aridity. Vegetation is typically sparse, though spectacular blooms may occur following rain. Deserts can be cold or warm and daily temperates typically fluctuate. In dune areas vegetation is also sparse and conditions are dry. This is because sand does not hold water well so little is available to plants. In dunes near seas and oceans this is compounded by the influence of salt in the air and soil. Salt limits the ability of plants to take up water through their roots.


animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.


forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).


having the capacity to move from one place to another.


This terrestrial biome includes summits of high mountains, either without vegetation or covered by low, tundra-like vegetation.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


active during the night


an animal that mainly eats all kinds of things, including plants and animals


Referring to something living or located adjacent to a waterbody (usually, but not always, a river or stream).

scent marks

communicates by producing scents from special gland(s) and placing them on a surface whether others can smell or taste them

scrub forest

scrub forests develop in areas that experience dry seasons.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


remains in the same area


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


lives alone


uses touch to communicate


that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).


Living on the ground.


reproduction in which fertilization and development take place within the female body and the developing embryo derives nourishment from the female.


Kuban,J., S. 1985. Nectar as a diet item of the ringtail cat. Southwestern Naturalist, 30(2): 311-312.

Nowak, R., 1999. Walker's Mammals of the World, Vol 1. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Poglayen-Neuwall, I, 1990. Procyonids. Pp. 450-453 in Parker,S.P., ed. Grzimek's Encyclopedia of Mammals, Vol 3. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Poglayen-Neuwall,I., 1988. Bassariscus astutus. The American Society of Mammalogists, 327: 1-8.

Trapp,G., 1972. Some anatomical and behavioral adaptations of ringtails. Journal of Mammalogy, 53(3): 549-557.