Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Animal Tails
Nature Bulletin No. 370-A   February 21, 1970
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt . of Conservation

Many animals, deprived of a tail, would appear as strange as a man without ears. Some would be helpless or greatly handicapped because, while the tail may seem merely ornamental, it usually has one or more important uses. On the other hand, for reasons hard to explain, many other kinds of animals have very short, apparently useless tails, and some have none at all.

A man has no tail, although he has a suggestion of one at the end of his spine, and the same is true of the gibbons and the great apes -- chimpanzee, gorilla and orangutan. Manx cats from the Isle of Man, and the Schipperke -- a Belgian breed of dog -- have no tails at all. Although they live in trees, like monkeys, the sloths of Central and South America, and the lovable sleepy little Koala "bear" of Australia, have no tails -- perhaps because they always move so slowly. Among the rodents -- many of which have quite long or bushy tails -- the guinea pig, the cavy and the giant capybara of South America have none.

The tails of crocodiles and alligators are formidable weapons used in swimming and to maim their enemies or prey. Many of the lizards leave their wriggling tails behind and escape when grabbed by that member because it breaks off very easily in the center of a vertebra. Mr. Lizard then grows a new one.

Some animals' tails are very expressive. A friendly dog wags his tail, when playing together. Our tabby cats twitch the tips of their tails from side to side when angry or tensed to spring on prey, just like lions, tigers, panthers and most felines. The white underside of the short triangular tail on a Virginia deer snaps upward and flashes like a signal flag as the animal bounds away in alarm. Cattle -- like horses, asses and zebras -- use their long plumed tails to accurately dislodge a biting fly but playful calves, or a stampeding herd of steers, hold their tails rigidly aloft when running at full speed -- a comical sight.

The skunk, which has a one-track mind, signals with his tail. If he whirls his hindquarters toward you, elevates that bushy tail and stamps his front feet, back away pronto, because he's ready to accurately shoot a fine spray, from two glands at the base of the tail, that will blind you and make you unfit for human society. The peaceful porcupine backs into battle, lashing its tail like a medieval mace and driving the barbed loosely-attached quills into the face or body of its attacker. The possum's long muscular naked tail is prehensile and is wrapped around a branch of a tree while feeding or used for carrying leaves to its nest, The flat trowel-shaped scaly tail of the beaver is not used as a trowel to carry mud but is used as a rudder and a powerful propeller while swimming, especially when towing branches. It is used as a prop when cutting trees and, in the water, to signal an alarm with a resounding thwack.

Many animals, such as fishes, whales and porpoises, birds, kangaroos, otters and muskrats, use their tails as an aid to locomotion. The sensitive tip on a mole's tail enables it to travel backward as fast as forward in its tunnel. The jumping mouse, for example, is unsteady and may fall over after a leap if, by accident, it has lost part of its tremendously long tail. Most New World monkeys use their prehensile tails like a fifth leg and hand. A squirrel uses its bushy tail as a plane and rudder when leaping through the air, and for other important purposes, so we wonder what will happen to one we saw, recently, that had only the stump of its trademark.

Tales, like tails, have an end. This is it.

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