Field Guide to Mammals
of Southern California
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Ringtail (Bassariscus astutus)
There is little recent documented information on the distribution or status of ringtail on National Forest System lands in southern California. Vaughan's (1954) report on mammals in the San Gabriel Mountains stated that ringtails were present in San Gabriel Canyon, Dalton Canyon, Palmer Canyon, and San Antonio Canyon. There are more recent reports of sightings in Lytle Creek Canyon in the San Gabriel Mountains (Stephenson and Calcarone 1999), south and east of the San Gorgonio Wilderness in the San Bernardino Mountains (LaHaye pers. comm.), and in the vicinity of Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear Lake in the San Bernardino Mountains (Loe pers. comm.).
Grinnel and others (1937) described three subspecies of ringtail: California ringtail (B. a. raptor), San Diego ringtail (B. a. octavus), and Nevada ringtail (B. a. nevadensis). California ringtail occurs along the western slope of the Sierra Nevada and the Pacific drainage slope from the Oregon border to Ventura. In the Ventura area, the California subspecies intergrades with the San Diego subspecies, which extends south along the Pacific slope of southwestern California to Baja California. Nevada ringtail was originally recorded east of the southern Sierra Nevada, and later Belluomini (1980) extended this range west into Owens Valley and northern Mono County.
Ringtails are generally known to occupy brushy and wooded areas along watercourses in foothill and lower montane canyons (Jameson and Peeters 1988). The species occurs at elevations from sea level (Grinnel and others 1937) to 8,800 feet (2,682 meters) (Schempf and White 1977). Its principal habitat requirements seem to be den sites among boulders or in hollows of trees and sufficient food in the form of rodents and other small animals (Williams 1986). Rocky habitats are apparently preferred. In the San Gabriel Mountains, Vaughan (1954) reported that ringtails occurred in canyons in the chaparral belt. Ringtails are similar to raccoons in that they are often found within 0.6 mile (1 kilometer) of a permanent water source (Zeiner and others 1990). Unlike raccoons, ringtails reportedly avoid urbanized areas (Jameson and Peeters 1988).
Ringtails produce one litter per year (Zeiner and others 1990). Dens may be in a hollow tree, a rock pile, a crevice in a cliff, or in abandoned burrows or woodrat nests (Ingles 1965, Zeiner and others 1990). Mating occurs in late winter and the litter of three or four young is born in May or June (Ingles 1965, Jameson and Peeters 1988). In a captive population, the mean gestation period was approximately 53.8 days for the first litter (Belluomini 1980). Ringtail young venture from the den at 45-50 days, and both parents raise the young until August or September, when the young disperse (Belluomini 1980, Burt and Grossenheider 1952).
Ringtail is nocturnal and active year-round (Zeiner and others 1990).
Diet and Foraging
Although primarily carnivorous, ringtails appear to be opportunistic feeders, eating insects, fruits, berries, frogs, birds, rodents (white-footed mouse and woodrat) and rabbits (Belluomini 1980, Ingles 1965, McMahon 1985, Zeiner and others 1990). The species forages both on the ground and in trees, usually near but not in water (Jameson and Peeters 1988, Zeiner and others 1990). In summer and fall, the ringtail diet consists primarily of insects, while birds, mammals, and carrion are eaten in the spring and winter (Taylor 1954, Trapp 1978). Ringtails ambush their prey and kill by delivering a fatal bite to the neck (McMahon 1985).
Grinnel and others (1937) estimated a home range of 109-1,273 acres (44-515 hectares). Densities can be as high as 27-53 ringtails per square mile (10.5-20.5 ringtails per square kilometer (Zeiner and others 1990). There is little information about territoriality for this species.
Common predators may include bobcat (Felis rufus), raccoon (Procyon lotor), foxes, and large owls (Zeiner and others 1990).
Belluomini, L. 1980. Status of the ringtail in California. California Department of Fish and Game, Nongame Wildlife Investigations (W-54-R-12).
Burt, William H.; Grossenheider, R.P. 1952. A field guide to the mammals of North America north of Mexico. 3rd ed. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Crandall, L.S. 1964. The management of wild mammals in captivity. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.
Grinnel, J.; Dixon, J.S.; Linsdale, J.M. 1937. Furbearing mammals of California. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Ingles, L.G. 1965. Mammals of the Pacific states. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Jameson Jr., E.W.; Peeters, H.J. 1988. California mammals. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
McMahon, J.A. 1985. The Audubon Society nature guides: Deserts. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Schempf, P.J.; White, M. 1977. Status of six furbearer populations in the mountains of Northern California. USDA Forest Service.
Stephenson, J.R.; Calcarone, G.M. 1999. Southern California mountains and foothills assessment: Habitat and species conservation issues. General Technical Report GTR-PSW-175. Albany, CA: Pacific Southwest Research Station, Forest Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Taylor, W.P. 1954. Food habits and notes of life history of the ringtailed cat in Texas. Journal of Mammalogy 35(1): 55-63.
Trapp, G. 1978. Comparative behavioral ecology of the ringtail and gray fox in southwestern Utah. Carnivore 1(2): 3-32.
Vaughan, T.A. 1954. Mammals of the San Gabriel mountains of California. University of Kansas Publications. Museum of Natural History 7(9): 513-582.
Williams, D.F. 1986. Mammalian species of special concern in California. Wildlife Management Division Administrative Report 86-1. Sacramento, CA: California Department of Fish and Game, Wildlife Management Division.
Zeiner, D.C.; Laudenslayer, W.F., Jr.; Meyer, K.E.; White, M., eds. 1990. California's wildlife. Volume III: Mammals. California statewide wildlife habitat relationships system. Sacramento, CA: California Department of Fish and Game.
Information gathered from California DFG - California Interagency Wildlife Task Group