Geography 316:  Biogeography     In progress 12/16/2002

The Biogeography of Ringtail Cats
(Bassariscus astutus)

by Julie Lu, student in Geography 316

Thank you for visiting our site. This web pages was written by a student in Geography 316: Biogeography and edited by the instructor, Barbara Holzman, PhD.  All photos and maps are posted with specific copyright permission for the express use of education on these web pages. The students have tried to be as accurate as possible with the information provided and sources and references are cited at the end of each page.


Species Name: Bassariscus astutus

Kingdom: Animalia
Species: Bassariscus astutus



Figure 1. Ringtail Cat. Source: Cabrera 1997


Description of Species:
Ringtail cats are not related to the cat family but are really members of the raccoon family, Procyonidae.  Ringtails are cat sized animals that resemble a mix between a fox and a raccoon.  The face is fox-like, with a pointed snout, and the body is raccoon-like and elongated.  The top side of the animal is yellow to dark brown or black, and the underside is a whitish buff.  The ears and eyes are large and the eyes are ringed by white fur.  The tail is very bushy and can be longer than the head and body in many cases.  It is also marked by 14-16 alternating black and white bands for which the animal is named (Whitaker 1996).  The dimensions of the average ringtail measures 24-32 inches (616-811mm) in length, 12 ¼ -17 ¼ inches (310-438mm) in tail length, and 1¾ - 2 ½ lbs (870-1,100g) in weight (Whitaker 1996).

The name “ringtail” comes from the black ring markings that are found on the animal’s tail.  Ringtails are also referred to by many other names, like miner’s cat (because they were used to help control rodents in mines), civet cat (because of the foul odor it secretes when confronted; this name is also an allusion to an African species named Civettictis civetta, which produces a substance called civet that is used in perfumes), and cacomistle (which is derived from the word tlacomiztli meaning “half mountain lion” in the native language of the Mexican Hahuatl Indians) (Nowak 1999).

Figure 2. Tracks of the ringtail. Source: Cabrera 1997

Natural History:

Ringtails usually inhabit semi-arid deserts, rock plateaus, and canyons (in the Southwest states such as Nevada, Utah, Arizona, and Texas).  They also live in coniferous forests (in California and Oregon).  Ringtails are great climbers and because of their tactile movements and agility, these animals make their homes in mountainous terrain, rock crevices, tree hollows, or under cliffs (Whitaker 1996).

Ringtails are primarily carnivorous but also do eat other food like plants, fruit, and insects.  Their diets generally consist of small mammals (rodents, rabbits, squirrels), small birds, insects (spiders, grasshoppers, crickets, centipedes, scorpions), and fruits (persimmon, mistletoe, hackberries).  As well, the diet varies throughout the year.  In the fall, it consists of mostly plants and insects; in winter, mammals and birds; and in summer, insects (Williams 2001).

The mating season of ringtails occurs from February to June, and the gestation period lasts 51-53 days.  The period females are in heat only lasts 24 hours within the mating season.  The number in a litter ranges from 1-5 but is usually 2-4, and newborns weigh an average of 0.9 ounces or 25 grams.  At birth, ringtails are white-haired and fuzzy and the tail is not yet colored with the white and black bands.  In the mating rituals of these animals, both males and females mark their territory (which does not overlap) with urine and feces usually near their dwellings.  These markings act as “calling cards” that deter competition in members of the same sex and attract reproductive partners in members of the opposite sex (Poglayen-Neuwall 1990).

Ringtails are solitary animals, except during mating season, and are nocturnal.  They are also quite vocal, especially the young. They will make squeaks, chitters, grunts, growls, and hissing (Williams 2001).  Ringtails are also exceptionally good climbers, which is why they make their homes in rock crevices, cracks, and cliffs.  They are very nimble and can quickly reverse the direction they are moving in by performing a cartwheel using their tail.  Another interesting feature is their ability to rotate their hind feet 180°.  Ringtails are also able to move up narrow passages by stemming (pressing their feet on one side of the wall and pressing their back against the other side or pressing both right feet on one side of the wall and both left feet on the other side) (Williams 2001).


Figure 3. Ringtail Cat.Source: Arizona Game and Fish Department (date unknown)


Figure 4. Geographic distribution of Oligocene to Pliocene fossil procyonids. Source: Hunt 1996



The evolution of the ringtail can be looked at by tracing the evolution of its family, the Procyonidae.  The Procyonidae are classified as a New World family, meaning it chiefly radiated in the Americas, although its ancestors did originate from the Old World.  This family includes the genera Bassariscus (cacomistles), Bassaricyon (olingos), Nasua (coatis), Potos (kinkajous), and Procyon (raccoons).  Based upon the karyotypic uniformity of the group it is argued that they are a closely related arctoid group (Hunt 1996).  Figure 1 shows that the procyonids were Holarctic in distribution.  This is also proven from study of the basicranial structure of several small arctoids form the late Oligocene and early Miocene (Hunt 1996).    

The procyonids originated from broad molared canids of the Miocene radiation.  One of these canids, Pylaocyon, is the ancestor of the procyonids based on the skull and dentition.  The fossils of these early procyonids closely resembles the modern panda (Ewer 1973).  The New World procyonid radiation, as stated before, stems from one more more of the Eurasian immigrant procyonids that came over to North America in the early Miocene.  The fossils of these first procyonids that appeared in North American date back to approximately 16 – 18 million years ago.  In the late Miocene, about 7 million years ago, the Cyonasua-group procyonids migrated to South America.  The oldest bassariscus fossils found come from the Miocene and were discovered in Nebraska, Nevada, and California (Williams 2001).

Figure 5. Cladogram of Procyonidae. Source: Ewer 1973


The ringtail is represented by two species that live in North America and Central America.  The North American ringtail (Bassariscus astutus) is the species covered here.  The range of the ringtail in the United States covers southwestern Oregon, California, southern Nevada, southern Utah, western Colorado, and southern Kansas through Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas (Whitaker 1996).

In California, the ringtail is distributed in most all parts of the state (as can be seen on the Range Map).  The distribution occurs mainly on the Pacific drainage slope from the Oregon boundary west of the longtiude of Mount Shasta to Ventura County (Grinnell et al. 1969).  The distribution of these species can be considered continuous. The home range of the ringtail occurs from about sea level to 9600 ft in elevation.  In California, ranges each animal covered varied from 44-515 hectares or 109-1280 acres (Alhborn date unknown).


Figure 6. Map of distribution of ringtails in California
Dots show localities where ringtails have been reported by trappers.

Source: Grinnel et al 1937








Interesting Facts:
Ringtails have no special status but are the official state mammal of Arizona (Williams 2001).  The main predators of ringtails are bobcats, raccoons, foxes, large owls and humans (Alhborn date unknown).  Although humans are one of their top predators, ringtails are not killed for any economic purpose as their fur and meat are not considered valuable.  Instead, ringtails are usually killed because they are pests to farmers, damaging poultry and orchards.  Ringtails can be kept as pets.  As well, if one wishes to spot a ringtail, they are widely distributed in California and can be seen in mountainous regions like the Sierra Nevada.

Arizona Game and Fish Department, Education Branch. (unknown). Ringtail [Online]. Available: [28 October 2002].

Alhborn, G. (unknown). Ringtail [Online]. Available: [28 October 2002].

Cabrera, K.A. 1997. Ringtail [Online]. Available: [28 October 2002].

Ewer, R.F. 1973. The Carnivores. Ithaca, NY. Cornell University Press.

Grinnel, J. J. Dixon and J.M. Linsdale. 1937. Fur-bearing Mammals of California, vol. 1. Berkeley, CA. University of California Press.

Hunt, Jr., Robert M. 1996. “Biogeography of the Order Carnivora.” pp. 485-541. In John L. Gittleman, ed. Carnivore Behavior, Ecology and Evolution, vol. 2. Ithaca, NY. Cornell University Press.

Nowak, Ronald M. 1999. Walker’s Mammals of the World.  Baltimore, Maryland. John Hopkins University Press.

Poglayen-Neuwall, I. 1990. Grzimek’s Encyclopedia of Mammals. New York, NY. McGraw-Hill Publishing Co.

Whitaker, J.O., Jr. 1996. National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mammals. New York, NY. Alfred A. Knopf.

Williams, D.B. (March 2001). Ringtail Cats [Online]. Available: [16 October, 2002].

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