Why Do Animals Have Tails?
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, though. Tails are a critical part of their anatomy. Tails enable them to communicate, ambulate and thermal regulate; and some even regenerate. Some times 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 pretty personal with the snake.
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.
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.
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.
A little closer to home, we see how dogs and cats use their tails to communicate. The position and/or activity of the tail tells others whether the animal is feeling aggressive, submissive, happy-go-luck, interested or just chillin'.
Squirrels and beavers use their tails to signal alarm. Squirrels will 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. Squirrels also use their tails as umbrellas. Notice the squirrels at your bird feeder the next time it snows.
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 huge tails for warmth and to aide in negotiating their rugged 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 for dear life with their tails.
Wild animals, such as wolves, coyotes, and snow leopards use their tails to help thermal regulate. When it's cold, they sleep with their bushy tails draped over their noses. This protects that noble proboscis from frostbite and helps warm the air they breathe at the same time.
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."
With all those neat things you can do with a tail, don't you wish you had one? Not me. I'll settle for my opposable thumbs, thank you.
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© 2012 Bob Bamberg