G. T. Lewellen Mammalogy Lab Fall 2003

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G. T. Lewellen - Mammalogy Lab - Fall 2003

Bassariscus astutus (Lichtenstein)
Bassaris astute Lichtenstein, 1830

Bassaricus astutus Coues, 1887
Other common names:

Ringtailed cat, Bandtailed cat, Cat squirrel, Coon cat, Coon fox, Civet cat, Miner’s cat

Distribution: The geographic distribution of Bassariscus astutus in North America extends from the southern Mexican provinces of Guerrero, Oaxaca and Veracruz, were it overlaps with a similar species Bassariscus sumichrasti, to as far north as southern Oregon (Hall, 1981). Bassariscus astutus is found throughout Mexico and the Southwest US, including all of Texas. Bassariscus astutus can be found commonly in the majority of Arizona (Hoffmeister, 1986) and in New Mexico (Findley et al., 1975). Distribution in Oklahoma is centered around the southwest Red River region (Caire et al., 1989). Northern boundaries are defined by accounts in eastern Oregon (Bailey, 1936), most of California (Grinnell et al., 1937), southern and eastern Nevada (Hall, 1981), southern Utah (Hall, 1981), portions of western and southeastern Colorado (Armstrong, 1972), from three counties in central Kansas (Bee et al., 1981), and portions of southern Arkansas and northern Louisiana (Choate et al., 1994).

Distribution within the state of Texas is centered on the Edwards Plateau, Hill Country, and Trans-Pecos regions (Schmidly, 1977, Davis & Schmidly, 1994). Bassariscus astutus is uncommon in the lower Rio Grande and Coastal Plains regions (Davis & Schmidly, 1994). Official sightings in the Llano Estacado-High Plains region are rare, with only four confirmed reports (Davis & Schmidly, 1994, Choate, 1997).

Exact locations of sightings in the Llano Estacado – High Plains region are from Armstrong and Briscoe counties (Davis & Schmidly, 1994), a male specimen from Howard County and a specimen from the Texas Tech University campus in Lubbock County (Choate, 1997). The subspecies found in the Llano Estacado – High Plains region is Bassariscus astutus flavus Rhoades, 1894 (Choate, 1997).
Physical Characteristics: Bassariscus astutus most closely resembles the American marten (Martes americana) with exception of the long, annulated tail (Neuwall, 1988). Bassariscus astutus has been described as a cat or fox-like in body size with short legs and an immense tail. It is distinguished from the similar-looking common raccoon (Procyon lotor) by its smaller size, slender body and longer tail striped only on the upper surface (Jones et al., 1985). Bassariscus astutus has a long, immense tail that is slightly longer than its body and head and is black tipped with alternating bands of black and white that merge into a white ventral stripe (Grinnell et al., 1937). Ringtail feet are semi-plantigrade and pentadactyl with claws that are short, straight and semi-retractable (Hall, 1981). The muzzle is elongate, pointed with vibrissae that are black and up to 75 mm long (Grinnell et al., 1937). The eyes have a chestnut-brown iris with a round pupil, and the face is mask-like because of rings of brown and white around orbits. Pelage ranges from stony gray to golden tan with longer black-tipped guard hairs (Grinnell et al., 1937). The pelage is paler on the sides and darkest down the middle of the back. Studies on the influence of habitat on pelage indicate that a darker upper body is more common in northern populations (Dice & Blossom, 1937). The under parts are white or pale buff, with large oval ears prominent (Bee et al., 1981).

The skull of Bassariscus astutus is elongate with light zygomatic arches. The range of measurements of adults from both sexes are: basilar length 68 to 75 mm, zygomatic breath 48 to 52 mm (Hall, 1981). The dental formula of Bassariscus astutus is I 3/3 C 1/1 P 3/4 M 3/2 with a total of 40 teeth (Hall, 1981).

External measurement ranges of Bassariscus astutus are: Total Length 616 to 811mm, Tail Length 310 to 438mm, Hind Foot Length 57 to 78mm, Ear Length to notch 44 to 50mm (Hall, 1981) and mass 870 to 1500 grams (Davis & Schmidly, 1994).

Natural History

Food Habits: Bassariscus astutus are omnivorous, with their diets varying seasonally and geographically (Bee et al., 1981). An analysis of ringtail scat from the Edwards Plateau region of Central Texas indicate that plant matter accounted for 74% of all food items encountered (Toweill et al., 1977). Other food items were found when seasonally available, such as insects and arachnids (present in 32% of scats examined), small mammals (14%), and passerine birds (6%; Toweill et al., 1977). The most encountered plant material were juniper, hackberry, and Texas persimmon (Davis, 1966, Toweill et al., 1977). The most encountered small mammals include white-ankled mice (Peromyscus perctoralis), cotton rats (Sigmodon hispidus), woodrats (Neotoma spp.), rock squirrels (Spermophilus variegatus), Mexican ground squirrels (Spermophilus mexicanus), eastern cottontail rabbits (Sylvilagus floridanus) and black-tailed jackrabbits (Lepus californicus; Toweill et al., 1977). If seasonal food habits are examined, Bassariscus astutus relies on insects (36%), plants (25%) and mammals (16%) in the autumn; mammals (36%), birds (24%), insects (20%) and plants (17%) in the winter; mammals (32%), insects (32%), plants (17%), birds (7%), and reptiles (2.3%) in the spring; insects (57%), plants (16%), mammals (5%),birds (4%) and reptiles (2%) in the summer (Taylor, 1954). There have also been reports of ringtails feeding on the nectar of Agave harvariana in the desert southwest (Kuban and Schwartz, 1985).
Reproduction: Although little work has been performed on Bassariscus astutus reproduction in the High Plains region of Texas, work has been done elsewhere and will be assumed to relate to this region. The breeding season of ringtails is short, from about April until May, with some reports as early as February (Davis and Schmidly, 1994, Neuwall and Toweill, 1988). Gestation period is unknown, but may be 45-50 days (Davis and Schmidly, 1994). Average number of young is three to four, with extremes observed at one and five (Richardson, 1942, Bee et al., 1981). The young are born blind and at approximately 28 grams, with eyes opening at 22 to 24 days (Bee et al., 1981). Sexual maturity is attained at one year (Richardson, 1942).
Behavior: Ringtails are strictly nocturnal and rarely active during the day (Grinnell et al., 1937, Kavanau, 1971). Studies indicate no tendency towards monogamy but due indicate a weak social structure based upon territory (Trapp, 1978). Perhaps the most unique behavioral trait of Bassariscus astutus is the wide range of vocalizations that have been observed. Vocalizations include metallic chirps, squeaks, whimpers, chitters, chucking, barks, and various growls (Willey and Richards, 1981). In relation to the type of habitat that Bassariscus astutus inhabits, the ringtail hind foot can rotate 180 degrees, permitting head-first descends and increased climbing ability (Trapp, 1972). Ringtails are highly adapted to climbing rocks and trees, as well as other movements such as “chimney stemming” between vertical walls, ricocheting off vertical surfaces and a very powerful leaping ability (Trapp, 1972). Despite the fact that ringtails may be found in high elevations, no hibernation activity has been recorded. It has also been recorded that Bassariscus astutus can achieve higher urine concentration than any other carnivore (Richards, 1976).
Habitat: Ringtails are found in a variety of habitats centered around the semi-arid to arid climates of the west and southwest. The primary habitat preferred by ringtails is characterized by rocky or talus slopes with oak (Quercus spp.), pinyon pine (Pinus edulis) or juniper (Juniperus spp.) woodland (Neuwall and Toweill, 1988, Davis and Schmidly, 1994). Ringtails also may inhabit montane regions as long as rocky outcrops or slopes are present. The ringtail’s fondness for juniper berries may account for higher abundances in overgrazed pastures of the west (Taylor, 1954). The habitat Bassariscus astutus is most often located in are rocks or crevices (Davis and Schmidly, 1994).

Denning behavior by ringtails is very informal and temporary. Observations in the Edwards Plateau region indicate that ringtails nest in any site, from cracks and crevices to hollow trees (Taylor, 1954). Dens are seldom modified or occupied for longer than three days, often attributed to the fact that Bassariscus astutus covers several hectacres a night in search of food (Toweill, 1976). The usual behavior is to not return to a prior den, but to find and occupy a new den at a convenient location along the route. Home range sizes have been averaged at 43.4 ha for males and 20.3 ha for females (Toweill, 1976). Minimum annual average population densities were estimated at 2.2 adults per square km on the Edwards Plateau of Texas (Toweill, 1976).

Economic Importance: The primary economic importance of Bassariscus astutus is as a fur-bearing animal, although this importance is insignificant today. Earlier reports of the trading of ringtail fur indicate that the fur is longer lasting than raccoon (Procyon lotor), and fairly attractive, running from grays to yellows (Grinnell et al., 1937). There is a record that during the last year of World War II (1945), the price of ringtail fur exceeded that legally set by the Office of Price Administration, simply due to the fact that the ringtail was not widely known by the administration, and therefore was not included in the list of ceiling prices designated for animals such as raccoons and minks. Ringtail fur sold for $10.00 a pelt during this year. Other economically important facts about Bassariscus astutus include limited use as a pet, and use by early miners in the Sierra Nevada of California as pets and rodent controllers.
Conservation status: Due primarily to the lack of sufficient information on the ringtail, conservation needs is as of yet unknown. Bassariscus astutus is recorded as doing fairly well in human-disturbed sites such as housing. Bassariscus astutus is still listed as a fur-bearing game animal in many states, including Texas. Conservation status should then be referred to as uncommon in locations such as their northern distributions and the Llano Estacado-High Plains region of Texas, and common in the southern distribution locations, such as central Texas and Mexico.

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