Tails Blog

Tails: the long and short of it

Steve Coppell - Sunday, March 20, 2011
They come in many shapes and sizes, but why do animals need them?

Balancing act
Cats that have had unfortunate accidents where part of the tail has been lost, often lose their ability to negotiate narrow ledges easily. For many animals, tails are an important means of balance.The domestic cats wilder cousin, the snow leopard, have the longest tail of all as they need to be incredibly agile to move around their mountainous habitat.Rats use their tail moving it from side to side as they negotiate narrow surfaces. Birds also use their tail for balance when they are stationary. Their extended feathers act as a counter weight when they are perching on things.

Social signals

Tails are important means of communication. Dogs wag their tails enthusiastically when they are excited, and drop them between their legs when they are anxious.
For domestic cats, a twitching tail is a sign of an alert or interested feline. An upright tail is a friendly signal, but when it is bushy and bristled it is indicates it feels threatened. Ostriches also use their tails to communicate with each other. The highest ranking male will point his tail upward to show his dominance, while the others keep their tails lower to indicate their subordination to him.

Power steering

For many creatures, the tail acts as a rudder to guide their body through water or air. Fish move their tails side to side where as the dolphin tail moves vertically up and down.

Insect repellent

For larger land animals, a tail is an effective form of pest control. Swishing their tail to bat away flies.

Food finder

Some animals tails have the added benefit of helping them find their next meal. Selected species of bat, for example, can transform their tail and wings into a basket for catching insects.Spider monkeys also use their tails for finding food. They have prehensile tails that grab like a hand , which leaves their hands free to forage for food. Crocodiles use their tails as a food storehouse. When food is plentiful they store extra fat in this area, which allows them to survive for long periods without eating.

Temperature control
Animals like squirrels have bushy tails and use them for warmth. They also hold their tails above their bodies to shield them from rain snow and sun. But tails don't have to be furry to keep animals warm. Rats have special blood vessels that regulate the amount of blood flow to their tails. Pumping extra blood into their fur less tails dissipates heat and is an effective way to cool their bodies. Conversely, blood flow can be restricted to this area to retain heat in cold weather.

Defence mechanism

Tails can also be used for more dangerous purposes- to attack other animals or ward off predators. Scorpions have armoured tails containing deadly venom to paralyse their prey. Many lizards can take or leave their tail, depending on the situation. Their tails will detach allowing them to escape or distract a predator by leaving their wiggling tails behind, and growing a new one at a latter stage. Rattlesnakes use a different approach to achieve the same result- they rattle to warn off encroaching threats.

Charles Darwin popularised the idea that peacocks showy tail feathers are a mating ploy designed to attract peahens.

Fast Fact
Italian researchers have recently found that dogs wag their tails to the right when they are happy, and to the left when they are feeling negative  emotions, as their right and left brain govern different emotions.