Why Do Animals Have Tails?

Updated on October 24, 2018
Bob Bamberg profile image

Bob has been in the pet supply business and writing about pets, livestock and wildlife in a career that spans three decades.

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Learn How To Read The Tale Of The Tails

Just imagine how problematic it would be if we humans had tails. They'd be forever getting caught in our reclining furniture, where would we put them while flying down Space Mountain, and we certainly wouldn't look as great as we now do in a pair of Speedos or yoga pants.

Animals are different. Tails are a critical part of their anatomy, enabling them to communicate, ambulate and thermal regulate; and some even regenerate. Sometimes it's hard to tell where the animal's body ends and its tail begins. Take snakes, for instance. Do they even have a tail or are they all tail? They have a tail, but to tell where it begins, you'll have to get up-close and personal with the snake.

The right hand edge of the white spot reveals  the slit known as the cloaca.  From that point backward is the snake's tail.
The right hand edge of the white spot reveals the slit known as the cloaca. From that point backward is the snake's tail. | Source

If you could convince it to lie on its back, you'd have to locate the cloaca. Pronounced clo-ache-uh, it's the orifice in egg laying species' through which waste and eggs pass.

In the case of snakes, the cloaca fits the symmetry of the belly plates, which makes it a little more difficult to locate, unless you ask the snake to bend over and cough. So, to simplify things just jiggle it's hiney a bit, and the cloaca will expose itself. From there to the tip of it's tail is the tail.

The Tail Is More Than An Animal's Fashion Accessory

Other reptiles use their tales as weapons, and formidable ones at that. If you've ever been tail-whipped by an iguana you know what I mean. Some amphibians use their tails as decoys when threatened by predators.

They'll wiggle their tails to lure the predator to attack that appendage, and when it does it will either rip the tail off or the amphibian will jerk itself free from the tail. The disconnected tail continues to wiggle, becoming the focus of the predator's attention and allowing the prey animal to escape.

The intended victim simply regenerates a new one over the coming weeks. The new one usually doesn't come back as long or defect-free as the original, but it gives the owner a new lease on life.

A regenerated tail usually won't come back matching the original tail, but the owner lives to once more bask in the sun.
A regenerated tail usually won't come back matching the original tail, but the owner lives to once more bask in the sun. | Source

The Tail as a Weapon of Defense

Other defensive uses of the tail are exemplified by the bee and scorpion, which sting, and the skunk, which must be able to raise the tail in order to deliver it's foul smelling spray. Bees and scorpions also use their tails to simultaneously inject a toxin that, in the case of scorpions, delivers a toxic dose of venom to its prey. The toxin injected by bees ranges from that of an irritant to potentially deadly to those allergic to it.

Tails Can Be Used as Communication Tools

Squirrels and beavers use their tails to signal alarm. Squirrels flick their tails back and forth rapidly in the presence of danger, while beavers will smack the water with it, making a fairly thunderous noise.

Rattle snakes use the last link of their tails, the rattles, to sound an audible alarm to those they perceive as a real and present danger. Skunks raise their tails and simultaneously stomp their forelegs as a warning to those they consider to be a real and present danger.

Domestic animals, including pets, use the position of their tails to communicate their state of mind, such as confidence, happiness, fear, aggressiveness or even indifference.

Animals Use Their Tails to Deal With the Elements

Squirrels use their tails as umbrellas. Notice the squirrels at your bird feeder during very sunny weather, or inclement weather. They will position their tails over their back and head, shading them from the sun, rain and snow.

Snow leopards and cold weather canids such as coyotes, foxes and wolves, use their huge tails for warmth. While sleeping they'll curl their tails around their bodies with the tip positioned over the nose. This warms the air they breathe enabling them to better thermal regulate.

Wild canids, such as this coyote, will use their tails to protect their noses and to warm the air they breathe.
Wild canids, such as this coyote, will use their tails to protect their noses and to warm the air they breathe. | Source
SNOW LEOPARDS
SNOW LEOPARDS | Source

The Tail As A Tool Of Locomotiion

The tail is an important tool in animal locomotion, too. Notice how precisely a cheetah zig-zags in unison with it's prey during the chase. Without a tail the big cat would probably wipe out at the first zig. Snow leopards (above) use their tails to aide in negotiating their rugged, mountainous habitat by acting as a rudder and helping them to maintain balance.

We little cat owners all marvel at how our pets negotiate knick-knack shelves, mantels, bookcases and other "mine-field" locations without (usually, that is) knocking stuff off.

The really lucky animals, such as New World monkeys, have prehensile tails, which means they can eat a banana, scratch an itch, cuff a cocky juvenile, and groom their neighbor all at the same time because they're holding on to a tree with their tails.

Fish use their tails in a side to side motion, while marine mammals use their tails in an up and down motion to propel themselves through the water.

Birds have two sets of flight feathers that work together to provide lift and maneuverability during flight. Wing feathers, known as remiges, comprise one set, tail feathers, known as retrices, comprise the other.

Tails Are A Major Factor In Avian Courtship And Defense Rituals

Some birds, such as peacocks and turkeys, use their tails in courtship rituals. They puff themselves up, fan their feathers out and rattle them, which is meant to earn the attention of the hens.

They also use the display as a threat towards their own species or defense-bluff against predators. You might be a turkey if, all puffed up, your last words are, "C'mon,you mangy, smelly, disgusting coyote, make my day."


Source

Resources

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Forensics Laboratory

The Feather Atlas

Flight Feathers of North American Birds


Healthy Pets with Dr. Karen Becker

Tail Language: What Is Your Pet's Tail Saying

December 19, 2014



Questions & Answers

    © 2012 Bob Bamberg

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      • Bob Bamberg profile imageAUTHOR

        Bob Bamberg 

        2 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

        Hi, Patricia, nice to hear from you. I got your email, thanks, and replied to it. My cat had a habit of sitting on my chest with her back end to me and swishing her tail back and forth across my nose. I swear she did it just to annoy me, for when she did it I'd re-position her and she'd leave without as much as a glance back. Thanks for stopping by...angels to you and your family as well.

      • pstraubie48 profile image

        Patricia Scott 

        2 years ago from sunny Florida

        Hi Bob...first I sent you an email (endeavored to that is...at this point it is not wanting to go through)...so I will check back. I just want to say thank you thank you so very much.

        And in response to this hub, my kitty has a tail to klunk me on the head...I am certain it is a tail hug....but am equally as certain that it is to keep me alert and attentive to all of his needs. Sending Angels to you and yours this evening ps

      • Bob Bamberg profile imageAUTHOR

        Bob Bamberg 

        3 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

        Hello rdsparrowriter, nice to meet you. Glad you enjoyed the hub and I appreciate you stopping by to comment.

      • rdsparrowriter profile image

        rdsparrowriter 

        3 years ago

        Interesting tales about the tails which I didn't know about :)

      • profile image

        Bob Bamberg 

        6 years ago

        Hi wetnosedogs, good to see you. Watching a dog wag his body with his tail is like watching a 5 year old on Christmas morning, isn't it? Talk about sincere joy...

        Thanks for stopping by. Regards, Bob

      • wetnosedogs profile image

        wetnosedogs 

        6 years ago from Alabama

        I wouldn't care to have a tail. But I love my dogs tails. My youngest dog gets to wagging her tail, most of her body is moving. Fantastic hub.

      • Bob Bamberg profile imageAUTHOR

        Bob Bamberg 

        6 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

        Hi Nettlemere, thanks for stopping by. Or how about those snow leopard tails! I agree, tails wouldn't be very becoming on humans, although we did have them at one time, I guess. Isn't the coccyx a vestige of the tails we once had? Regards, Bob

        Hello, Leslie, thanks for reading and commenting. It just goes to show you that even the most mundane topics can be very interesting at times. Thanks for stopping by. Regards, Bob

      • profile image

        lesliebyars 

        6 years ago

        That was a great hub, very interesting.

      • Nettlemere profile image

        Nettlemere 

        6 years ago from Burnley, Lancashire, UK

        I've occasionally found myself imaging human tails and I think they'd look scrawny, bare and unattractive and we'd find ourselves envious of the lovely and useful tails of dogs or beavers!

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