Why Do Animals Have Tails?
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, we wouldn't know where to 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 thermoregulate; 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? It turns out that they do have a tail—but to tell where it begins, you'll have to get up-close and personal with the snake.
Where Does a Snake's Tail Begin?
If you could convince a snake to lie on its back, you could 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 its hiney a bit, and the cloaca will expose itself. From there to the tip of its tail is the tail.
The Tail Is More Than an Animal's Fashion Accessory
Other reptiles use their tails 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.
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 its 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.
Rattlesnakes 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 thermoregulate.
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 its 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."
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
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