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ZOO-ology column: Talking Tails

Sept. 18, 2011 at 4:18 a.m.

A sleeping lion swings its long tail.

By Judie Farnsworth

There's an expression, "Nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs." What does a tail do besides get in the way? It may not seem particularly important, but to an animal, it's a big deal.

A tail can help with balance. Watch how a squirrel uses its tail moving through branches.

The long tail of a blue and gold macaw counterbalances the weight of its heavy beak. Without it, the macaw would struggle to stay upright when perching.

A kangaroo without a tail could have a problem.

A tail may indicate an emotion. A cat with a tail held high is confident. A dog with a tail held tight between its legs is nervous.

Creatures that live in water can have powerful tails that propel them. Fish, otters and alligators are all great examples. Think of the salmon and its amazing journey upstream to spawn.

A tail can be used for defense. A powerful whack from an alligator or crocodile tail or a slap from a porcupine can be lethal. The scorpion tail delivers a potent sting. Lizards have delightful detachable tales to help avoid capture. The process is called caudal autotomy and it's very effective.

All lizards can detach their tails, but not all can re-grow them and growth in some larger lizards can be quite slow. The replacement is often shorter and can look quite different.

In addition, the lizard may be slower and lose an energy supply since fats are stored at the base of the tail.

A second-rate tail can put a crimp in a lizard's social status. Loss of status may affect its territorial holdings.

A tail might signal or sound an alarm.

When frightened, a swimming beaver will warn others by smacking the water with its tail. The sound can be heard for great distances both above and below water. There are animals that visually signal their location and keep in contact by holding their tails high in the air.

Some deer flash the white underside of their tails as a warning.

The alarm signal of a rattlesnake's tail is well known and respected. Incidentally, did you know a rattlesnake can't hear the sound of its own rattle?

A tail can be utilitarian. If you're a new world monkey or an opossum, you probably have a prehensile tail to grab, hold and help you move about.

The tail of a horse or cow is a built-in flyswatter. A feline mom may wiggle her tail to encourage her young to pounce and learn to hunt.

A tail can be a sign of quality. In the bird world, the sharp dressed man may have an advantage. Think peacock. The beautiful train he displays is made up of elongated upper tail coverts. The true flight feathers (retrices) of the tail are underneath.

Male barn swallows have an edge with the ladies if they have a handsome tail.

Tremendous Tails: The land animal with the longest tail is the giraffe, with a terrific 8 foot tail.

The blue whale is tops for the widest tail at 25 feet.

Be sure to check out the terrific tails at The Texas Zoo.

Judie Farnsworth is a longtime volunteer at the Texas Zoo specializing in educational programs.

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