Willem is a wildlife artist based in South Africa. He says "My aim is simply to express the beauty and wonder that is in Nature, and to heighten people's appreciation of plants, animals and the wilderness. Not everything I paint is African! Though I've never been there, I'm also fascinated by Asia and I've done paintings of Asian rhinos and birds as well. I may in future do some of European, Australian and American species too. I'm fascinated by wild things from all over the world! I mainly paint in watercolours. . . but actually many media including 'digital' paintings with the computer!"
Today's picture is of a Ring-tailed Cat, Bassariscus astutus. This is actually not a cat at all! Nor is it any close relation. It is indeed a relative of the good, old raccoon! It is much smaller though, short-legged and slender-bodied, with a magnificent, fluffy, black-and-white-ringed tail. Its alternative name of simply 'Ringtail' is much more appropriate. Another name for it is 'Miner's Cat' which I'll discuss later.
This little critter is indeed very cat-like in its general appearance, as well as in its quick, graceful movements. You can get a good sense of it from this little YouTube video. Perhaps more than a cat it resembles a genet. It has the same sharp-nosed face, same general proportions, same ringed tail, even similar white and dark markings around the snout and eyes, the only clear visual difference being that the genet has spots on the body while the ringtail doesn't. Genets, like cats, have retractable claws, while those of the ringtail are semi-retractable. In size the ringtail is a bit smaller than a genet, having a body length of 30-40 cm (12”-16”) and a tail a bit longer, and weighing from 700g/1.5 lbs to 1.5 kg/3.3 lbs.
The striking similarities between genets and ringtails might be due to one of two factors. The first is that, quite possibly, both genets and ringtails share traits that are primitive for carnivores in general. By that I mean that they both are probably similar to the ancient ancestors of the mostly more specialized carnivorous animals that are around today, like dogs, cats, bears, otters, badgers and, yes, raccoons, to name just a few. The ancestors of the modern order of Carnivora lived dozens of millions of years ago and were all small, long-bodied and long-tailed creatures inhabiting forests, with adaptations to climbing. It is possible that these ancestral carnivores resembled the genets and ringtails in many respects, perhaps even in having ringed tails! Subsequently, many descendants of these small predators adapted to different lifestyles and environments and became diverse, but all the same, there were still forests and the basic body plan that served the original carnivores well was still a very viable adaptation for living and hunting in forest or bush country. So, the carnivores that still lived this kind of life had little reason to change. Even though genets and ringtails are on different branches of the carnivore family tree, their 'primitiveness' might result in them looking very similar.
Another possibility is called convergent evolution. This means that the ancestors of genets and ringtails might indeed have been quite dissimilar from each other, but separately adapted to similar lifestyles and became similar in appearance. The ancestors of ringtails might have been raccoon-like but became smaller and more slender in order to climb and creep around in holes and crevices. Genets, too, might have reached their present shape from a different-shaped ancestor, and also for the sake of climbing and crawling. Right now we don't have many fossils of extinct ringtail and raccoons, or civets and genets, and cannot make detailed reconstructions of their evolutionary histories. Especially we cannot yet tell what the fur and colour patterns of long-gone prehistoric creatures looked like. So, we cannot yet tell whether ringed tails came with all the ancient carnivore ancestors or whether genets and ringtails evolved them separately and convergently.
Today genets are found in Africa, and ringtails in the Americas. This species lives from Mexico to the southern USA, in dry country with rocks, scattered pine trees, bushes and cacti. It does like access to water, such as in riverbeds and canyons. It makes use of caves and crevices for shelter. Ringtails have very flexible ankles that can turn through 180 degrees. This helps them climb; the rest of their bodies is also very flexible and they can turn around in tight spaces. Their long tails help them with leaping and maneuvering, and with balance on narrow ledges or branches. They are excellent tree as well as rock climbers.
Ringtails are not often seen, being nocturnal and wary of humans. By day they sleep curled up in a nest in a hollow tree or rock crevice. At night they are very active predators, hunting birds, mammals up to the size of rabbits, lizards, snakes, frogs and toads, and insects. But they also take in some plant foods such as fruit and berries. They lead solitary lives, only coming together for mating. The male will bring food to the female during her gestation. She will bear two to four cubs, born blind. Their eyes open after a month, they start hunting at four months, and reach adulthood at ten months.
These pretty little animals can be tamed and make playful and loving pets. In the days of the miners and other settlers coming to western America for the first time, it was domesticated or at least tolerated so as to keep cabins and sheds free from rats and mice, hence the name 'Miner's Cat'. A way to attract it was to place a box with a hole of the right size cut in it close to a stove or fireplace; the ringtail, as soon as it discovered this cozy, snuggly lair, would move in permanently. Its scientific name means 'clever little fox', and it is indeed more appropriate to call it a fox than a cat, since the raccoon family is, along with bears, on the 'dog' side (to which foxes belong too) of the carnivore order rather than the 'cat' side. In the forests of Central America a related, very similar species occurs called a Cacomistle, Bassariscus sumichrasti.