Whether they’re covered with skin, scales, feathers, or fur, tails are tailormade for accomplishing some to-tail-ly amazing things.
Critters don’t have warm blankets to snuggle under when the weather turns chilly. But many mammals — such as squirrels, raccoons, and this red fox — have something just as good: a bushy tail. On cold nights, foxes curl into a doughnut and wrap their furry tails around their bodies. To stay extra cozy, they tuck their noses underneath.
Flying squirrels glide through the trees with the greatest of ease, but without tails, they’d surely go splat! By steering with their long, flat tails, the squirrelly skydivers can swoop around branches and sail safely to their destinations.
All birds use their tails to help steer when they fly. American redstarts have an additional use for their feathered fannies: finding lunch. As redstarts hop from branch to branch, they flash open their tail feathers to reveal bright orange spots. The spots startle insects, which flush from hiding places to be snapped up by the hungry birds.
Timber rattlesnakes use their tails to tell other animals to back off. Special scales on the tip of the tail form hollow, interlocking segments. When the snake shakes its tail, the segments click together, resulting in a rattling sound. Rattlesnakes can flex their tail muscles 50 times a second. Now that’s a whole lot of shaking going on!
Need an extra hand — er, paw — to get things done? It helps to have a tail. An opossum’s tail is prehensile (pre-hen-suhl), which means it can curl around things. While climbing, opossums wrap their tails around branches for balance, and they can even hang by their tails for several seconds. When a possum gets sleepy, it gathers a bundle of leaves in a loop of its tail and carries them to its bed.
When a collared lizard feels the need for speed, it rears up on its hind legs and dashes off, using its freakishly long tail to keep from tipping over. Careening around corners is no problemo, either. The lizard simply tosses its tail to the side to avoid skidding off course.
When confronted by a predator, a ring-necked snake curls its tail into a corkscrew and whips it around like a reddish-orange bull’s-eye. The tiny serpent hopes its bright tail will act as a decoy, luring a predator’s sharp teeth away from the snake’s delicate head.
A bat uses the thin skin stretched between its tail and its back legs like a catcher’s mitt. But instead of catching curveballs, bats use their tails to snag insects to eat. With their talented tails, bats can fill their bellies with bugs in an hour or two.
A beaver’s flat, leathery tail is like a Swiss Army knife — good for many things. When chomping trees, beavers lean back on their tails for balance. When swimming, beavers steer with their tails. If a beaver spots a predator, it slaps its tail against the water to warn family members of the danger. Beavers even store fat in their tails, using them like fuel tanks when food runs short.
When there are acorns to be gathered, you can’t let a little wet weather keep you inside. That’s why squirrels never leave home without their umbrellas. When it rains or snows, the tree-hugging nut-munchers flip their bushy tails over their heads to keep from getting soaked.
Rat-a-tat-tat, what kind of tail is that? The edges of a woodpecker’s tail feathers curl inward, which makes the feathers stiff and strong. The head-banging birds prop their sturdy tails against tree trunks to keep from tipping backward while they hammer.
If a predator grabs a skink by the tail, the little lizard leaves its behind behind. By flexing special muscles, the skink snaps off its tail and squeezes blood vessels shut. While the detached tail twitches to keep the predator busy, the stumpy skink slinks to safety. It takes three or four months for the skink to grow a new tail.
Crayfish use their fan-shaped tails like canoe paddles. By pulling the tails quickly toward their heads, crayfish can swoosh backward at nearly 25 miles per hour.
We’ve now tailspun to the end of our talk. But there’s one more thing tails are great for: communication. Your dog wags his tail to tell you he’s happy. Your cat lashes her tail to tell you she’s irritated. And male wild turkeys? They fan out their tails to tell female turkeys, “Hey good lookin’, let’s go on a date.”
Angie Daly Morfeld
Nichole LeClair Terrill