Have you ever wished you had a tail? If you did, how would you use it? You’d have plenty of options. Different animals have many kinds of tails, and use them for some unique and surprising functions. Click through to learn 10 ways animals use their tails.
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It’s no secret that a dog’s tail movement can tell you a lot about what the dog is feeling, but science continues to find that canine tail communication is even more nuanced than most folks know. For example, a recent study showed that different kinds of tails wags mean different things, and even the direction of a wag — left or right — has important distinctions. Cat tails are arguably even more expressive. Depending on its position and motion, a cat’s tail can display emotions ranging from fear, irritation, excitement, submission and plenty more.
Lots of animals use their tails for balance. If you have a cat, you can watch this in action when it walks along a narrow ledge. The cat’s tail acts as a counterbalance. You can see squirrels using their tails in the same way, while zipping across tree branches and telephone lines. Those bushy tails on squirrels also keep them balanced in mid-air when they jump from branch to branch.
For some animals, the tail is an essential part of basic movement. This is mostly true in the sea, where both fish and marine mammals use their tails for locomotion. All fish have vertically aligned tails that move from side to side. Conversely, marine mammals have tails that move in an up-and-down motion. This allows the mammals to propel themselves upward out of the water to breathe air when they need it.
Many animals use their tails defensively. Rattlesnakes, though deadly, attack with their fangs. The rattling tails that give the snakes their name are used for defense, warning predators and clumsy interlopers to stay away. Some lizards possess tails which they can separate from their bodies for defense and escape. The three-banded armadillo has the unique ability to fit its head and tail together like matching puzzle pieces, allowing the animal to roll into a perfect, armored ball when threatened.
Though defense is more common, a few creatures use their tails as weapons for attack. The scorpion’s tail, tipped with a poisoned stinger, is perhaps the best known of these. Although scorpions defend themselves with their tails, they also use them to hunt prey. A scorpion catches and subdues its meal with its strong front pincers, then brings its tail up and over its body to deliver a dose of deadly poison.
One way to tell the difference between monkeys and apes is that monkeys have tails and apes don’t. The easiest way to tell the difference between New World monkeys and Old World monkeys is that only New World monkeys have prehensile tails. A prehensile tail can hold and grasp objects, effectively functioning as an extra limb. Monkeys typically use their prehensile tails to swing from branches or hold food. Some other animals, including anteaters and opossums, also have prehensile tails.
Birds have two types of feathers that they use to achieve flight. Feathers in the wings are called remiges and provide support. The feathers that make up a bird's tail are called rectrices. A bird’s tail acts as its rudder, and the rectrices provide stability and control.
Peacocks, the males of the peafowl species, are practically defined by their tail plumage. A peacock’s tail display is an essential part of attracting a mate. Each peacock’s tail is unique to him, like a fingerprint. Some are larger and more impressive than others. Generally, the bigger and more elaborately decorated a peacock’s tail feathers are, the more attractive he is to peahens.
Animals like cows, horses and zebras have long, switch-like tails. They use their tails mostly for convenience. Long and flexible with tufts of hair on the ends, these tails function as fly swatters to keep flies and other annoying bugs from buzzing around or biting them on the back.
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Some tail uses are less savory than others. For example, a hippopotamus can twirl its tail like a propeller, which it does to spread its feces around while defecating. This action allows the hippo to mark its territory. Watch a video of a tail-twirling hippo at your own risk.