How Do Mammals Use Tails?


Although many vertebrates have tails, mammals probably have the most versatile tails out of all animals. Fish use their tails for swimming, while many reptiles, such as lizards, use their tails for locomotion. The huge amount of muscles in a reptile tail allow them to move but cannot be used for many other functions.

Mammals use their tails physically to balance, swing, swim, grasp, and climb. They also use their tails to show behaviors including alerts to danger, in courtship rituals and to ward other animals away from their territories.

Tails are used in some amazing ways by mammals. If you want to find out more then please read on.

Vertebrae In Tails

Mammals have hips, limbs, and muscles, which allow the tail to be used for many different functions. There are four types of vertebrae in a mammal’s vertebral column. These are the neck (cervical), chest (thoracic), body (lumbar), and tail (caudal).

Mammals come in a range of body sizes, but despite this, the number of vertebrae among different species is very similar. Although the necks of a whale and a giraffe look completely different, they both have the seven vertebrae in their necks.

The vertebrae in the tail is different however between species. Dogs have an average of 20 caudal vertebrae in their tail, whereas a rabbit has 16 or 17. As an animal ages the number may change as they fuse together, or are joined to the pelvis. Vertebrae nearer the body have nerves attached but towards the end of the tail, they are just solid bone.

Physical Uses

Although mammals use their tails in many ways, there are a few main ways that they use it. Tails can be useful to balance such as when a dog is running and turns a corner sharply, and opossums use their tails to grasp things such as trees. Tails can also be used as a means of communication or as a warning to predators.

Harvest mice can use their tails as a set of extra hands. Harvest mice climb up stalks to feed on the heads of corn, and due to their light weight, they don’t break the plant stems. Harvest mice use their tail to help them climb the corn, using the tip to grasp on and steady it when climbing in the wind. They also use their tails to curl around the corn when descending down from the tip of the corn.

Shrews also use their tails to climb and balance. They hook their tails around before climbing up or down.

If you have ever seen a squirrel then you cannot fail to have noticed their long, bushy tails. Squirrels are one of the mammals that use their tails to balance when climbing trees and are one of the most accomplished acrobats. The long tail is about half the length of its body and is covered in hairs that are 4 inches long. These large bushy tails also help to keep them warm throughout winter.

Using Tails To Show Danger

As well as keeping many mammals warm, tails are also used for behavioral purposes. Rabbits use their tails to signal to other rabbits that a predator such as a fox is close. By flashing the white that is on the underside of their tails, other rabbits will know that there is danger close by. Brown hares also have a white tail but unlike rabbits will keep its tail flattened to avoid detection.

White-tailed deer also show their tails when alarmed, and a herd will put their tails up to show the predator. Predators can get confused by the show of white tails and may not know which animal to chase after.

Using Tails For Courtship

Tails are also used for courtship purposes as well. When male deer (bucks) compete for females (does), they use their tails to attract attention. The bucks will raise their tails to show they wish to mate. Foxes also use their tails to attract mates for courtship. As they follow the vixens they curl their tails over their backs, rather than horizontal as they usually are.

Using Tails To Show Territories

Tails are also used when showing who owns the territory. Squirrels will show intruders whose territory they have entered by a flick of their tail. If the intruder still approaches, then they may raise their tail over their back.

If the invader still does not back down then they may move it around rapidly and making it look bigger by fluffing out the hairs. If the trespasser backs down then they also make a signal with their tail. As they retreat the subordinate intruder may flatten their tail hairs and lower the tail.

Some species of mammals also use their tails to identify their territory in other ways. Foxes have scent glands on their tails half the way up. They leave their scent on markers around their territories such as fence posts and tree stumps.

Badgers have scent glands at the base of the tails and again they leave their scent around their territory.

The scent includes information about the animal such as their sex, social status and whether they are ready to reproduce.

Tails Make It Easier To Identify Different Species

Looking at the tail of a mammal is also especially useful for us to determine the species that we are looking at. At first glance it may not always be easy to distinguish a stoat from a weasel, however by looking at the tail, this makes it a lot easier to tell them apart. Stoats have a black tip to their tail which the weasel does not.

How Do Aquatic Mammals Use Their Tail?

Otters are semi-aquatic mammals that use their tail to guide them when swimming. The tail is used as rudder and can allow the otter to steer and propel itself forward. Otters use their tails, along with their paws and movements of their body to swim.

Seals are different from otters as they do not have a long tail. As most of their tail vertebrae are in their bodies, they use their hind flippers to propel themselves forward.

Marine mammals such as whales and dolphins have tails that are very fish-like. They use these to move forward by moving them up and down. At the end of the tail, the vertebrae taper to support two flat flukes which helps them to swim.

Bryan Harding

Bryan has spent his whole life around animals. While loving all animals, Bryan is especially fond of mammals and has studied and worked with them around the world. Not only does Bryan share his knowledge and experience with our readers, but he also serves as owner, editor, and publisher of North American Mammals.

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