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 massive 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 warn of danger, courtship ritual, and ward other animals away from their territories.
Tails are used in some fantastic 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 various body sizes, but the number of vertebrae among different species is very similar despite this. Although the necks of a whale and a giraffe look completely different, they both have seven vertebrae in their necks.
The vertebrae in the tail are 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 or join the pelvis. Vertebrae nearer the body have nerves attached, but they are just solid bones towards the end of the tail.
Although mammals use their tails in many ways, there are a few main ways that they use them. Tails can be helpful to balance, such as when a dog runs 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 and steady it when climbing in the wind. They also use their tails to curl around the corn when descending from the end 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, you cannot fail to notice their long, bushy tails. Squirrels are one mammal that use their tails to balance when climbing trees and are among 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 on the underside of their tails, other rabbits will know that there is danger close by. Brown hares also have a white tail but will keep their tail flattened to avoid detection, unlike rabbits.
White-tailed deer also show their tails when alarmed; 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.
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 horizontally 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 tail flick. If the intruder still approaches, they may raise their tail over their back.
If the invader does not back down, they may move it around rapidly and 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 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 tails’ base, and they leave their scent around their territory.
The scent includes information about the animal, such as its sex, social status, and whether they are ready to reproduce.
Tails Make It Easier To Identify Different Species
Looking at a mammal’s tail is also especially useful for us to determine the species we are looking at. At first glance, it may not always be easy to distinguish a stoat from a weasel; however, looking at the tail makes it much 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 a rudder that allows 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. Most of their tail vertebrae are in their bodies, so they use their hind flippers to propel themselves forward.
Marine mammals such as whales and dolphins have very fish-like tails. They use these to move forward by moving them up and down. At the end of the tail, the vertebrae taper supports two flat flukes, which helps them swim.
Bryan Harding is a member of the American Society of Mammalogists and a member of the American Birding Association. Bryan is especially fond of mammals and has studied and worked with them around the world. Bryan serves as owner, writer, and publisher of North American Nature.