|The Ring-tailed Lemur of Madagascar.|
"But couldn't it also be a raccoon's tail?" she asked. "Raccoons have striped tails too! How do you know it's not a raccoon tail?" After reassuring her that I personally had seen the lemur before it became tail-less (which truthfully was not all that reassuring), I explained that raccoons typically have shorter, rounder, more bushy tails than Ring-tailed Lemurs. "Cacomistles and coatis on the other hand," I continued, "have tails that are quite similar in length and shape to a lemur's. They would be very hard to identify if I didn't know where they were from!"
And then came the big question.
"Why do they all look the same?"
|The Ringtail, or Ring-tailed Cat, can be found|
in the Southwestern United States. It has a
relative farther south known as the Cacomistle.
Both are not actually cats, but are more
closely related to raccoons and coatis.
|Many species of coati, a Central and South American|
relative of raccoons, also have ringed tails.
|Raccoons are the best local representative with the ringed-|
tail color pattern.
|Cheetahs have partially ringed tails used mostly for camouflage.|
|Clouded Leopards also have ringed tails.|
|The Tiger's ringed tail is probably used for camouflage too.|
|Sinosauropteryx was a the first dinosaur to show distinct color patterns|
in its fossil remains. Paleontologists believe that it had a ringed tail just
like many modern day mammals.
|The Spotted Genet and many other|
members of its family have ringed tails
which they use for communication.
There are, of course, some exceptions and odd balls. The Cheetah for example, has a partially striped tail despite it's very terrestrial lifestyle. As do Tigers. In some of these cases, terrestrial species have evolved a spotted or striped coat for camouflage, and these stripes/spots simply continue down the length of the tail. But according to the evolutionary biologists, most ringed tails evolved entirely independently from patterns on the rest of the body -- meaning ringed tails used for camouflage are the exception to the rule.
As for the ringed tail of the Ring-tailed Lemur (a Primate, not a Carnivore), the same rules probably apply. A long tail for arboreal locomotion is a great place to put some valuable visual cues regardless of whether you are nocturnal or not. We know that lemurs are very social, so it makes sense that they would utilize their tail to communicate. And Ring-tailed Lemurs do in fact use their beautiful tails for unique displays such as scent displays and aggressive interactions between rival individuals.
So, long story short, black-and-white striped tails are an excellent example of convergent evolution among relatively unrelated animal groups (raccoons to lemurs to dinosaurs) and are used for communication, especially in arboreal and/or nocturnal species. If you'd like more information regarding color patterns in the Carnivora order, check out Alessia Ortolani's scientific paper from 1998 titled "Spots, stripes, tail tips, and dark eyes: Predicting the function of carnivore color patterns using the comparative method." PDF here.
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