Ringtails, State Mammal of Arizona

by DerdriuMarriner

Is it a cat? Is it a fox? Is it a raccoon? It is a ring-tailed cat, a raccoon family member whose scientific name (Bassariscus astutus) means "cunning little fox."

As New World natives, ring-tailed cats (Bassariscus astutus) favor the arid regions of North America, venturing from Oregon southward into northern and central Mexico.

Generally smaller than a housecat, ringtails prefer rocky habitats in which they display their superb agility as climbers.

Their stable tail, with its considerable length, enables ringtails to perform cartwheels

Because of their easy tameability, ringtails were popular as pets and mousers for miners and pioneer settlers.

Arizona's state mammal has populated the arid North American landscape for millennia, with fossils dating back to the Miocene Age of about 5,300,000 to 23,000,000 years ago.

closeup of Bassariscus astutus

ringtail, Piestewa Peak, Phoenix Mountain Reserve, south central Arizona
ringtail, Piestewa Peak, Phoenix Mountain Reserve, south central Arizona


Ringtail bodies are cat-like in their adult length of 12-17 inches (30-40 centimeters) and their Siamese-style buff to dark brown coloring. Their faces are fox-like in their snouts. Their tails are raccoon-like, with 12-17 inches (30-42 centimeters) of 14-16 black-and-white rings. Their big, round eyes of darkest black, brown or purple look out from black-edged, white masks, the reverse of a raccoon. Their eyeshine upon emerging at dusk or nightfall shows up raccoon-like yellow or un-raccoon-like red.

Ringtails therefore alternate between sporting cat-, fox- and raccoon-like looks. But they also claim some features all their own. For example, they may be capable of:

  • Climbing narrow passages by pressing both left feet on one wall and both right on the other;
  • Reaching high places because of tree squirrel-like hind ankle joints which rotate 180°+;
  • Reversing directions by cartwheeling;
  • Ricocheting from side to side off huge passages and wide fissures.

Despite the above-mentioned hallmark achievements, ringtails usually occupy the same family of mammals as raccoons. They therefore share the same descent from the earliest procyonids of 16,000,000-18,000,000 years ago.

Some scientists nevertheless categorize ringtails into their own family. They do so on the basis of the ambulatory preferences of ringtails. Raccoons walk on the soles of their feet whereas ringtails never do so.


Phoenix, Piestewa Peak, Phoenix Mountain Preserve, south central Arizona
Phoenix, Piestewa Peak, Phoenix Mountain Preserve, south central Arizona


Spring through fall, ringtails devour as food sources:

  • Arachnids (especially scorpions and spiders);
  • Berries, fruits and plants (especially hackberries, mistletoe and persimmons);
  • Centipedes;
  • Insects (especially crickets and grasshoppers);
  • Millipedes;
  • Nectar.

Cultivators, gardeners and orchardists sometimes dread ringtail appearances during growing and harvesting seasons. The normally timid, well-behaved mammal may get a bit out of hand in orchards full of luscious fruit. Ringtails may suffer the consequences of such uncontrolled binge-eating by being mislabeled civet cats -- whose predilection for musky scent-spraying, random feces-dropping, and rooftop noise-making are unpopular with humankind -- to which they are related only distantly through mutual membership in the carnivorous order of mammals.


North American buntings, such as the painted bunting, are preyed upon by ring-tailed cats.

painted male bunting (Passerina ciris)
painted male bunting (Passerina ciris)


In winter, ringtails eat:

  • Frogs and toads;
  • Lizards and snakes;
  • Mice and rats;
  • North American buntings;
  • Rabbits;
  • Squirrels.

Viewing a ringtail pouncing upon prey is quite an experience. Once again, the normally courteous, reticent mammal kills by grasping their hibernal food source in an inescapable clasp and sinking sharp teeth into their prey's neck.


Closeup: radiocollared female peeking out from a den site.

Bassariscus astutus (ringtail)
Bassariscus astutus (ringtail)


Year round, ringtails behave reclusively. They build isolated dens in:

  • Empty buildings;
  • House attics;
  • Mine shafts;
  • Rock crevices;
  • Tree hollows.

They call the above-mentioned places home at altitudes of 4,593-9,514 feet (1,400-2,900 meters). At such higher elevations, they locate their homes within foraging, mating and sheltering ranges of 44-515 hectares (109-1,280 acres).


Bobcats prey upon ring-tailed cats.

Bobcat kitten with rabbit prey
Rodeo, Arizona/New Mexico border
Rodeo, Arizona/New Mexico border


Ringtails experience year-round stress from predators. They must be ever vigilant against the hunger pangs of:

  • Bobcats;
  • Coyotes;
  • Foxes;
  • Hawks;
  • Owls.

When chased or cornered, they will resort to:

  • Barking;
  • Chattering;
  • Chirping;
  • Clicking;
  • Growling;
  • Grunting;
  • Hissing;
  • Howling.

They yip in particular terror when cornered by hungry raccoons intent upon their favorite relatives for dinner.

Female ringtails breed once a year, in February or March. It there is during those two months when the female offers humankind chances for observing appearance and behavior. The female will be noticeably more graceful and petite than the male.

The father finds the mother-to-be food until she delivers. Gestation may take from 45 to 60 days. Delivery of live litters therefore tend to take place in May of June. Late winter through late spring or early summer therefore will be optimum times for viewing adult male ringtails.

A litter has a minimum of one new-born and a maximum of five. Cubs have birth weights of 0.88-1.06 ounces (25-30 grams). They mature to weights of 1.8-3.3 pounds (0.8-1.5 kilograms).

Ringtail cubs are dependent upon their mothers the first four months of life. They are especially vulnerable the first month of life since they are born blind and fur-less. They are weaned at the age of six months.

Cubs can leave the parental den and mate once they are weaned. They in fact reach sexual maturity at the age of 10 months. Mid-summer through mid-spring therefore will be convenient opportunities for witnessing cub learning experiences.

Ringtails are known to live 6-9 years in the wild. They can live 10 years longer in zoos or with families. In facilities or houses, they favor access to dark, dry, warm hideaways in addition to whatever is deemed by owners or staff as "ringtail space."


"ringtail space": Phantom Ranch, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

ringtail cat
ringtail cat


As pets, ringtails can be counted upon to emerge and evidence such enjoyable, helpful or informative behaviors as: 

  • Controlling nuisance wildlife; 
  • Grooming themselves; 
  • Marking territory; 
  • Playing with home-made or store-bought toys as well as with people.

The above-mentioned conduct in fact constitutes something which ringtails perfect over the course of 150+ years of interacting with humankind. Records of ringtails' charming alternation between friendliness and reticence go back to the memoirs of prospectors and settlers of:

  • Central and northern Mexico;
  • Southwestern United States of America.

Within the USA, ringtails specifically may be found in:

  • Arizona;
  • California;
  • Colorado;
  • Kansas;
  • Nevada;
  • New Mexico;
  • Oklahoma;
  • Oregon;
  • Texas;
  • Utah.

In Mexico, ringtails may be called either cacomixtle norteño or rintel. In the United States, they respond to the names:

  • Marv cat;
  • Miner's cat;
  • Northern Cacomixtle;
  • Ring-tailed cat;
  • Ringtail cat.

The oldest ringtail fossils date back to the Miocene Age of about 5,300,000 to 23,000,000 years ago. They link to habitats in California, Nebraska and Nevada. Ringtails nevertheless remain -- since August 13, 1986 -- the official mammal of the Copper and Grand Canyon State and the reluctant icon of arid North America.


illustration by Louis Agassiz Fuertes (February 7, 1874 – August 22, 1927)
illustration by Louis Agassiz Fuertes (February 7, 1874 – August 22, 1927)



My special thanks to:

  • Talented artists and photographers/concerned organizations who make their fine images available on the Internet;
  • Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University for superior on-campus and on-line resources.


Radiocollared female peeking out through "window" from den site in tree.

Bassariscus astutus (ringtail)
Bassariscus astutus (ringtail)

Sources Consulted


Arizona Capitol Museum. "Arizona State Mammal: Ringtail (Bassariscus astutus)." Arizona State Library. Retrieved December 13, 2013.

  • Available at: http://www.azlibrary.gov/museum/symb-mamm.aspx

"Arizona State Mammal." Arizona State Symbols. statesymbolsusa.org. Retrieved December 13, 2013.

  • Available at: http://www.statesymbolsusa.org/Arizona/mammal_ringtail.html

Audubon J.J. and J. Bachman. (1849-1854). The Quadrupeds of North America. Edited and with new text by Victor H. Cahalane in 1967. Hammond Incorporated: The Imperial Collection of Audubon Animals.

"Bassariscus astutus." es.wikipedia.org. Retrieved December 13, 2013.

  • Available at: http://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bassariscus_astutus

Bassariscus astutus. Integrated Taxonomic Information System. Retrieved December 13, 2013.

  • Available at: http://www.itis.gov/servlet/SingleRpt/SingleRpt?search_topic=TSN&search_value=180577

Beddard, F. (Frank Evers). Mammalia. Illustrations by Mr. Dixon and to Mr. M. P. Parker. In: S. F. Harmer and A. E. Shipley, eds., The Cambridge Natural History, Vol. X. New York City: Macmillan Company, 1902.

  • Available via Project Gutenberg at: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/39887/39887-h/39887-h.htm

Childers M.K. "Ringtail." whozoo.org. Retrieved December 13, 2013.

  • Available at: http://www.whozoo.org/Intro2002/MeliChild/MKC_Ringtail.htm

de Magalhaes J.P., Budovsky A., Lehmann G., Costa J., Li Y., Fraifeld V., Church G.M. (2009). "AnAge Entry for Bassariscus astutus." The Human Aging Genomic Resources: online databases and tools for biogerontologists. genomics.senescence.info. Retrieved December 13, 2013.

  • Available at: http://genomics.senescence.info/species/entry.php?species=Bassariscus_astutus

Goldberg, Jeffrey. (2003). Bassariscus astutus. In: Animal Diversity Web. University of Michigan Press. Retrieved December 13, 2013.

  • Available at: http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/site/accounts/information/Bassariscus_astutus.html

Hunter, Luke. (2011). Carnivores of the World. Princeton University Press.

"Mąʼii dootłʼizhí." nv.wikipedia.org. Retrieved December 13, 2013.

  • Available at: http://nv.wikipedia.org/wiki/M%C4%85%CA%BCii_doot%C5%82%CA%BCizh%C3%AD

Nowak, Ronald M. (2005). Walker's Carnivores of the World. Johns Hopkins University Press.

Rhoads, Samuel N. (1893). "Geographic Variation in Bassariscus astutus, with Description of a New Subspecies." Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences at Philadelphia, Vol. 45: 413-418.

  • Available via Internet Archive at: https://archive.org/details/jstor-4062043

"Ring-tailed Cat." en.wikipedia.org. Retrieved December 13, 2013.

  • Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ring-tailed_cat

Ringtail Bassariscus astutus. enature.com. Retrieved December 13, 2013.

  • Available at: http://www.enature.com/fieldguides/detail.asp?allSpecies=y&searchText=bassariscus&curGroupID=5&lgfromWhere=&curPageNum=1

"Ringtail (Bassariscus astutus)." The Mammals of Texas -- Online Edition. nsrl.ttu.edu. Retrieved December 13, 2013.

  • Available at: http://www.nsrl.ttu.edu/tmot1/bassastu.htm

"Ringtail (Bassariscus astutus)." Pima Community College: Desert Ecology of Tucson A2. Retrieved December 13, 2013.

  • Available at: http://wc.pima.edu/Bfiero/tucsonecology/animals/mamm_ring.htm

Ringtail (Bassariscus astutus). vivanatura.org. Retrieved December 13, 2013.

  • Available at: http://www.vivanatura.org/Bassariscus_astutus.html
  • Available at: http://www.vivanatura.org/Bassariscus_astutusPhotos.html

Timm R., Reid F., and Helgen K. (2008). Bassariscus astutus. In: IUCN 2008. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Retrieved December 13, 2013.

  • Available at: http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/41680/0

Williams, David B. "Ringtails Cat (Bassariscus astutus)." DesertUSA.com. Retrieved December 13, 2013.

  • Available at: http://www.desertusa.com/mag01/mar/papr/ringt.html

Wilson D.E. and Reeder D.M. (2005). Bassariscus astutus. In: Mammal Species of the World: A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference. 3rd edition. Johns Hopkins University Press. bucknell.edu. Retrieved December 13, 2013.

  • http://www.departments.bucknell.edu/biology/resources/msw3/browse.asp?id=14001603


"Fig. 215.—Cunning Bassarisc. Bassariscus astutus. × 1⁄5. (From Nature.)"

F. Beddard, Vol. X: Mammalia (1902); In: S. F. Harmer and A. E. Shipley, eds., The Cambridge Natural History
F. Beddard, Vol. X: Mammalia (1902); In: S. F. Harmer and A. E. Shipley, eds., The Cambridge Natural History
the end which is also the beginning
the end which is also the beginning

"Miner" ring-tailed cat: hand-painted miniature porcelain figurine:

made in Chiang Mai, Thailand, major center for fine porcelain and quality handicrafts.
Little Critterz "Miner" Ringtail Cat

Grand Canyon National Park - Bright Angel Trail: black t-shirt

Two Arizona icons: Grand Canyon and Ringtails (state mammal)
Grand Canyon National Park - Bright Angel Trail
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Me and my purrfectly purrfect Maine coon kittycat, Augusta "Gusty" Sunshine

Gusty and I thank you for reading this article and hope that our product selection interests you; Gusty Gus receives favorite treats from my commissions.
DerdriuMarriner, All Rights Reserved
DerdriuMarriner, All Rights Reserved
Updated: 08/20/2014, DerdriuMarriner
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?


DerdriuMarriner on 12/14/2013

cmoneyspinner, Me, too: "I really wish they would leave the painted buntings alone." :-)
Bible fauna and flora is an area which I have researched. It's especially fascinating, with many creatures and trees, etc., mentioned. Go for it!

DerdriuMarriner on 12/14/2013

uptanabe, You never know! You might one day have the pleasure of meeting a ringtail. They are happy as pets.

DerdriuMarriner on 12/14/2013

AbbyFitz, Me, too: ring-tailed cats do have an exotic aura!

cmoneyspinner on 12/14/2013

I'm OK with all the other stuff the ring tails eat. But I really wish they would leave the painted buntings alone. This article caused me to look up the state mammal for Texas. I thought it was the armadillo. Turns out we have several official mammals - armadillo, long horns, bats, etc. UM ... not enough for me to write about though. :) (Just kidding.)
( http://www.netstate.com/states/tables... )

I'm not really into animals. It would take a lot of research to write about some. Although I toyed with the idea of Bible creatures - leviathan, behemoth, stuff like that. I'll think on it some more. Good article!!

jptanabe on 12/14/2013

Oh cute indeed! I didn't know much about these little "cats" - of course they don't live in the Northeast like me so I doubt I'll meet one.

AbbyFitz on 12/13/2013

They are so cute! But they look like they would not be native to the US, they look exotic to me.

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