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Tails are appendages that usually come off the bottom of the torso around the base of the spine. However, while most tails belong to vertebrates, some invertebrates like slugs and scorpions also have them.
Tails come in all shapes and sizes, and each animal uses them in different ways. From assisting in climbing and running to communication and courtship and even as a defense mechanism, tails are truly one of nature’s wonders.
1. Assist with Balance & Mobility
Fossils of water-dwelling animals that are millions of years old have been found with tails, and it’s believed that land animals evolved from these. As movement on land is vastly different from that in the water, tails also had to evolve to assist in mobility and balance.
Out of all the creatures in the animal kingdom, kangaroos are the only ones known to use their non-prehensile tail as a fifth leg. When they’re moving in a forward direction, these marsupials will use their tails in sequence with their legs to propel them forwards. They’ll place their forelimbs on the ground first and then, when it’s time to move the hind limbs, they’ll use their tail as an accelerator.
But it doesn’t end there, roos also use their heavy set tails to help keep them balanced as they make huge hops up to 10 feet (3 meters) in the air and 40 feet (12 meters) in front of themselves! Their tails also come in handy for balance as they are grazing.
Compare the structure of the kangaroo tail, and you’ll see that it’s equipped with super strong muscles that are akin to those of a human leg.
New World Monkeys
New World Monkeys include primates such as squirrel monkeys, wooly monkeys, howler monkeys, and marmosets. They’re found in South and Central America and have some of the most interesting tails in the world.
Most New World Monkeys have what is known as a prehensile tail. This means that it is able to grasp and hold objects, allowing the monkey to move more easily or even use its tail for feeding and gathering.
Many New World Monkey species have long, slender, and flexible tails that they use to hold onto tree branches as they move through their arboreal environment. Interestingly, they’re the only group of monkeys on the planet that have prehensile tails; all others have regular tails.
As you’re more than likely aware, the cheetah is the fastest land mammal and it can run at speeds of up to 80 mph (130 km/h). But in order to remain stable during these bursts of high speed, the cheetah needs its tail.
Having a long tail, coupled with a slender body and long legs is imperative in achieving such high speeds, but the tail is also used in a rudder-like manner when the animal needs to make a quick turn. Since cheetahs usually run quickly when hunting, being able to change direction rapidly is a must. As they turn, their tail not only aids this but also ensures the cheetah remains stable.
But the tail, which features black rings and a tufted end, is also used for communication. Young cheetahs follow their mothers’ tails in long grass, meaning it almost acts as a signal or beacon for them.
2. As a Defense Mechanism
The animal kingdom is a pretty dangerous place and there are threats everywhere you look. In order to protect themselves from becoming another animal’s dinner, many creatures use their tails as a method of self-defense.
For example, animals like skunks emit a foul-smelling substance from glands at the base of the tail which sends predators packing. Other creatures, like the porcupine, have quilled tails which no animal would want to bite into.
Rattlesnakes are venomous, but before they bite as a warning, they’ll let you know that they’re not happy. The sound of a rattlesnake rattle is feared by many people that suffer from ophidiophobia; a fear of snakes.
Rattlesnake rattles are made from keratin and are found at the end of the tail. For many years, scientists thought that the snake would vibrate its tail as a simple acoustic warning of its presence. However, it’s been discovered that these serpents are actually able to change the frequency of the rattling sound to fool predators into thinking they’re closer than they are.
Some scientists argue that the rattle first evolved as a means of attracting prey. While the subject is still up for debate, there is one known species of rattler; the dusky pygmy rattlesnake that is known to use its rattle as allure.
The tail is one of the most defining features of the scorpion. Not only are these tails visually impressive, but they’re able to deliver a potent venom that protects the animal against predators and for hunting.
Unlike many other creatures, the tail of the scorpion isn’t an appendage in its own right but rather an extension of its body. The proper name for the scorpion’s tail is the metasoma and this is made up of body segments as well as a series of muscles and nerves.
While all scorpions have venom, not all of them release it when being attacked. In some species, the scorpion will move its tail, giving the impression it is about to sting when in reality, it has no intention of doing so. Still, it’s enough to make any would-be predator run in the opposite direction.
Lizards & Salamanders
While a tail certainly comes in handy, there are some species of lizards and salamanders who would rather do without it. In the case of a predator attack, that is.
Species like anguid lizards, geckos, and skinks all have an ability known as autotomy. This allows the lizard to literally shed its own tail in the event of an attack. By doing this, the animal is able to flee to safety and eventually, a new tail will grow.
It might sound gory, but the lizard’s body is designed for this very moment. Along a portion of the tail is an area known as the fracture plain, where the muscles and connective tissues are weaker. When this area is stimulated, the lizard can drop its tail without it, resulting in a devastating wound.
3. Communication & Social Interaction
The very way that an animal moves its tail, its markings, and many other factors are all excellent methods of communication.
We were all told growing up that when playing with a dog, to watch its tail. If it’s wagging then it’s a sign that the dog is happy and enjoying the interaction. And that’s true. But happiness isn’t the only emotion that canines use to express how they’re feeling.
Dogs are incredibly intelligent animals, and one of the ways they communicate is via their tails. When the tail is wagging, this is a sign of excitement and happiness. Some dogs will also wag their tails as a form of greeting, and scientists say that this expression is akin to a human smiling.
If the tail is tucked between the hind legs, then this is the dog’s way of communicating fear or anxiety. This can also be a sign of submission. While scientists previously believed that dogs used their tails to balance when moving, this has since been disproved, and it’s thought that the tail is solely used for communication.
Another of the world’s most beloved domestic animals is the cat and, just like their canine counterparts, these felines use their tails to let other cats and humans know what’s going on.
If you see your cat wagging its tail then, unlike a dog, this isn’t a sign of happiness. On the contrary, cats wag their tails to express displeasure or fear. This is a cat’s way of telling you to leave them alone and if you don’t, they may even thump their tail on the ground to show that they’re about to get aggressive. At this point, you’ll probably also notice how all of the fur on the tail stands to attention and creates a bristled appearance.
However, while fast wagging indicates displeasure, a slow, controlled wag usually happens when the cat is concentrating. Similarly to dogs, when a cat places its tail between the legs, this is a sign of anxiety, and you may notice the head draws down at the same time.
The white-tailed deer uses its tail for communication in a variety of ways. Hunters find this incredibly helpful as it enables them to predict what the deer is going to do next.
For example, when the deer is feeling calm and content, the tail may gently swish or wag. On the other hand, when it feels threatened or scared, the deer will point its tail up and out in a half-mast position. If the deer tucks its tail between its legs then this is a good indication that it’s about to flee.
Despite being relatively solitary animals, white-tailed deer will use their tails to warn other deer that there is danger. They do this by flagging their tails, and it’s mostly the females that behave in this way, although bucks will do it occasionally.
4. For Courtship Rituals
Another form of communication in the animal world is courtship. Creatures great and small use fabulous displays and rituals and many of these involve the tail. From elaborate dances using the tail, to colorful displays, this is a surefire way to get the girl.
Birds of Paradise
Male birds of paradise have incredibly showy plumage that differs greatly from that of the females. The reason for this is purely down to attracting a mate; the showier he is, the more likely he will be to get the girl.
But it isn’t just the fact that the tail has colorful feathers, it’s also in the way that the male uses it. During courtship rituals, he will dance using the tail in a seriously impressive display. For starters, blue birds of paradise will hang upside down and spread their tails in a beautiful arc around their bodies.
Red birds of paradise have tails that coil like ribbons and, when trying to attract a mate, the male will whirr and snap his tail in a rhythmic fashion at the same time as flashing his iridescent chest feathers.
Peacocks are so well known for their elaborate courtship displays that humans even use their name to refer to a man dressed to impress. While peahens aren’t much to look at, their male counterparts have long, beautiful tails which they fan out in an effort to attract attention.
One of the most distinct features of the peacock’s tail are its eyes. No, not optical eyes but markings that are made to look like eyes. Scientists have discovered that these eyes remain still, even while the peacock shakes his tail feathers, almost hypnotizing the object of his affection.
Interestingly, the feathers of the peacock tail have caused uproar in the theory of sexual selection, which states that the tail gradually evolved. The problem is that there is no evidence to suggest why female peafowl prefer beautiful tails which was something that even Darwin had to contend with.
Found in the forests of Central America, manakins have one of the most impressive courtship dances in the avian world. The males use their long tails to make a series of sounds during these elaborate rituals.
They’ll fan out their tails, which feature two elongated feathers, and then scrape them which causes a popping sound. Alongside this, they’ll also use their wings to make other sounds in an audio attempt to win the girl.
Like a lot of bird species, manakins engage in lekking behavior, with several males performing dances en masse. Females can then make a choice based on their appearance and performance.
5. To Help with Swimming
There are many characteristics that make a good swimmer, and one of them is a tail. Marine animals like dolphins, whales, and fish all use their tails to move through the water.
The tail of a whale is called a fluke, and these huge marine mammals use them to aid in moving through the water. But what’s interesting is that whale tails aren’t like those of fish. Instead of being vertical, they are horizontal and this is to do with how their spines move up and down; an evolved trait.
The tail moves up and down as the whale swims through the ocean, propelling it forward. It has two flippers on its side, which help in steering. But this isn’t the only way the whale uses its tail. When feeding, it will use the fluke to guide creatures towards its mouth.
Amazingly, the markings on the tail are distinct enough between individuals that scientists are easily able to track whales. If you want to get a good look at these markings, then it’s best to observe them as the whale flukes; dives down into the water, with the tail being the last thing to become submerged.
Beavers have flat, wide tails which are ideal for swimming. In fact, when they move through the water, they’re surprisingly graceful. The tail acts as a rudder for direction but also keeps the beaver stable as it swims.
And these aren’t the only uses. The beaver will also use its tail for communication, slapping it on the ground to warn others of impending danger. What’s more, on land, beavers can use their tail as an additional limb to keep them stable as they stand on their hind legs.
Crocs are one of the most feared animals on the planet. Yet, while they have an aggressive reputation; they’re also incredibly fascinating. For one thing, I find the crocodile’s tail one of the most efficient in nature when it comes to swimming.
These large reptiles spend a lot of time in the water, hunting for food. It is able to navigate through the water by moving the tail in a lateral, wave-like motion.
Not only this but the tail is equipped with strong muscles that make it a very powerful appendage. So much so that crocs are able to launch their entire bodies out of the water using the power from their tails.
6. To Help with Temperature Regulation
You may have been told that humans lose heat out of their hands and feet. Well, if we had tails, we’d lose heat from this appendage too. That’s why some animals use their tails as a way of controlling their temperature. They’ll curl their tail up to conserve heat when they’re cold, or they may extend and wag it to cool down.
Found across the Arctic Tundra, the Arctic fox is adapted in many ways to withstand the chilly temperatures in this part of the world. These animals have dense fur, and their compact bodies minimize contact with the cold. But these aren’t the only ways they regulate their temperature; it’s all in the tail.
Arctic foxes have very large tails that are extremely well insulated and fluffy. In order to reduce thermal loss, they’ll use their tails as a blanket for their legs, wrapping it around to keep in the heat.
I’ve heard a lot of people say that rat tails freak them out. As a previous pet rat owner, I have to say I disagree and that the tails of these rodents are one of their most interesting features.
Rat tails are long, slender, and hairless, so it may come as a surprise that they use them to regulate their temperature, but it’s true.
Rats cannot sweat, so releasing heat through their tails is an essential trait. Not only can they do this, but they’re even able to adjust the blood vessels within the tail depending on the conditions. When it’s warm, they’ll open up to allow greater blood flow. However, when it’s cold, the rat will close the blood vessels to keep heat in.
Cape Ground Squirrel
The Cape ground squirrel is found in the southern parts of Africa in dry regions. Differing from the tree squirrel, these animals tend to be much larger than their arboreal relatives.
In terms of the tail, the Cape ground squirrel has a very bushy tail, and this comes in handy when they need to keep out of the sun. They’ll cover their heads with their tails, using them just like a parasol.
Scientists previously believed that raising the tail in this manner aided in thermoregulation, but it’s since been discovered that this is more of a comfort thing in terms of staying out of the heat.
7. Pest Control
Living in the wild means existing alongside a whole host of creatures. While some are no bother, there are lots of pests and having a tail can come in seriously handy in keeping these pesky critters at bay.
Horses have long tails made up of several long hairs, known as the skirt. These hairs fall from the dock which is a series of skin and muscle connecting the tail to the base of the spine. The design of the tail allows the horse to use it in a swishing motion.
When horses swish their tails, they do so in order to deter insects and other pests. Interestingly, there are two ways in which this motion is effective. Firstly, the individual hairs on the tail bat insects away from the horse. Secondly, the swishing motion creates a wind which upsets the flight pattern of flying insects like mosquitoes.
Scientists have been studying the effectiveness of this motion and have determined that the biomechanics could benefit humans in a similar way resulting in a non-chemical insect-repelling tool.
While zebras are in the same family as horses, their tails differ somewhat. Their tails are not made from a series of hairs, like a horse, but instead feature a tuft at the end. However, despite the differences, zebra tails are still incredibly effective at whipping away insects.
Zebras constantly swish their tails in an attempt to shoo off pesky flying insects and, in the event that one does successfully land, the animal may even flee.
But this is unlikely because, in addition to the tail swishing, the zebra’s stripes act as a deterrent for insects since they create a dazzling effect, preventing the insect from landing.
The largest land mammals are among the most amazing creatures on earth and elephants have several adaptations to help them survive in their environment. One of these is their tail which is relatively long and covered in fine hairs made from keratin.
Just like other animals, elephants will swish their tails to keep flying insects away. However, they’re also able to use them as a fly swat when critters land on their bodies. They do this with such force that there’s enough torque to accelerate a car!
When an elephant swishes its tail, it moves at more than one meter per second. The resulting wind is enough to keep mosquitoes and other pests well out of the way. Of course, some still manage to land, but only around 15% and that’s where the swatting mechanism comes into play.
8. As a Food Reserve
Unlike humans, wild animals don’t always have access to a plentiful supply of food so they need ways to conserve energy. Some creatures are able to store fat and energy in their tails for use when food is scarce.
The gila monster is a venomous species of lizard found in desert and semi-desert areas. These large reptiles have a fearsome reputation and are often the subject of folklore. But take a closer look, and you’ll find that they’re pretty fascinating.
These lizards have long, thick tails which can account for up to 20% of their overall length. The tails are designed to store large amounts of fat, and when food availability is low, a single gila monster can survive for several years purely on the fat stored in the tail.
Unlike a lot of lizards, the tail of the gila monster is vital to its survival which is why it does not have the ability to drop its tail in the event of an attack.
The quokka is an Australian species found on an island off the east coast of the mainland. These creatures are well-loved by humans as they appear to smile in photos which have earned them the title of the happiest animal on earth.
Not only happy, but quokkas are also resourceful and use their tails to help them survive when food and water are scarce. While their tails are only short, they’re capable of storing enough food and water to sustain the animal for months at a time.
The platypus is perhaps one of the strangest creatures on earth. They’re mammals, but they lay eggs, and they have an extremely unique appearance, almost as if they were put together with the remaining body parts of other animals.
Their tails are wide and flat and they’re ideal for moving the platypus through the water, keeping it stable. They’re also used for burrowing.
But one of the most interesting traits of the platypus tail is the ability to store fat which they use when food availability is low. Moreover, female platypuses will store fat when they burrow, to sustain them during breeding season.
Why Don’t Humans Have Tails?
Can you imagine walking around with a tail behind you? While this might seem like a strange thought, scientists believe that humans did once have tails but due to evolution, we lost them. In fact, it is thought that up to 25 million years ago, humans did have this extra appendage but then fossil records started to show evidence of tailless primates.
Much of why this happened is still a cause of confusion for scientists, and there’s lots more research to be done. However, new studies looking at how genes are turned on and off during the embryonic stages could hold the clue to solving the mystery.
There are certain genes that are responsible for creating the tails in primates and, in human development, a genetic mutation means that a tail no longer grows. Studies on mice who were given the same mutation as humans resulted in many of the animals not forming a tail.
Still, humans have a tailbone at the bottom of the spine, and there have been as many as 40 reported cases of babies being born with a tail. This isn’t a fully functional appendage as we see in animals but more of a soft tail that contains nerves, muscles, and blood vessels but no bones.