Why Do Animals Have Tails? A Fun-Filled Tale of Tails!

Ritwik Bhuyan
Feb 29, 2024 By Ritwik Bhuyan
Originally Published on Oct 13, 2021
Edited by Katherine Cook
Fact-checked by Sakshi Raturi
Fox jump on the forest meadow with first snow.
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Age: 3-18
Read time: 9.7 Min

Dogs, horses, monkeys, and cows all have tails between their legs.

The kingdom of animals is full of vertebrates with tails of some sort that follow them everywhere and are not ornamental. Animal tails actually have a purpose in their lives.

Although all animals use their tails to balance, some fish, birds, and mammals also use their tails to steer in the air and water. Some creatures use their tails to brush away predators and some mammals just use their tails to store fat. As the head of animals is quite heavy and takes down the body towards the front, a tail in mammals helps keep the balance in these quadrupeds. As animals walk head first, the tails act as a form of counter-balancing while moving forward. First, let us understand what actually is a tail. A tail is a part of the body situated at the read end of some animals. It's not usually straight and is considered a flexible appendage to the body of animals. A tail can be short, long, or curled. Depending on the animals we discuss, the tails serve different purposes. It's used for navigation in the ground by most animals too. A dog wagging its tail can be considered a purpose too as seen in many breeds around the world. Showing emotion is a part of the use of a tail too.

Some animals use their tails for protection against tough weather conditions, for example the Arctic fox, while some can see their tails for movement, balance, and to escape the wrath of flies and insects coming near the body. Let us learn in brief the uses of these tails that are so essential to their daily survival. We, humans, have evolved from having tails to protect us, but many of our extinct ancestors had them for defense. In humans, you must have heard about the tailbone. An important use of a tail is for balance. Animals use their tails to stay upright, balanced, and for navigation in small gaps and really tight spaces. The function is simple, animals use their tails as rudders to change direction when needed on land, in air, or in water. Birds use their tails while in flight to turn faster. Monkeys use their tails to grasp and swing from the branches of a tree. This is called a prehensile tail.

Animals also use their tails to communicate. A dog wags its tail to show different emotions, be it happy or sad. Different tail positions give different emotions. A wag towards the right means dogs are happy while a tail at rest means the opposite. It's different with cats as they keep wagging their tails to show displeasure towards their human counterparts. Horses are known to wag their tail when stressed or in pain. A tail to the ground means nervousness. Some animals use their tails for survival and to protect themselves in self-defense against predators. Creatures like a rat and a lizard even shed their tails to escape. Animals use their tails often to keep insects and flies away too as they use their tails as a swatter. Lastly, survival is the biggest need for an animal in the wild and tails help them achieve that from the harsh cold weather. Furry tails are used to cover their noses in colder areas. The tail looks like a blanket. We as humans might wonder why we lost our tails, but the use of our tails was no longer a concern for humans.

If you enjoyed this article, why not also read about why do cats like boxes and why do cats stick their tongue out here on Kidadl?

Why do so many animals have tails?

Tails that look like fur or tails that look like a pure muscle, we have all seen these types of animal tails and wondered what the purpose is. It is not useless for creatures and humans have evolved so the tail is no longer visible. Babys are in some rare cases born with something that looks like a tail, but once humans start aging, the tail becomes a tailbone.

Some animals might wag their tails, while others might take a swing at you, all species of animals have tails with special purposes that do wonders for them. To climb a tree, an animal would need a prehensile tail, like monkeys or opossums, to escape a predator. In contrast, an animal might leave its tail behind like a gecko or lizard. For many mammals, tails are part of evolution and have different purposes in life. For dogs and cats, tails provide balance and a mode of communication. The tails of animals have different purposes and these are for survival, communication, protection, and defense against bigger animals.

Animals use their tails frequently and to their advantage. Tails have evolved quite beautifully over the years. Take the example of a spider monkey. A spider monkey does not use its hands to move around, but instead uses its prehensile tail for swinging around trees. A human child might be born with a soft tail with only muscles, nerves, and blood vessels and no bone. This is actually not normal and not a vestigial true tail. In fact, even though this appendage is in the same place as a tail, it cannot be considered a true tail. Humans only have a tailbone which is completely normal. Have you ever fallen down on the ground flat on your rear end? Hurts don't it? This is the tail bone we are talking about.

When does an animal use its tail?

There are various uses of tails of animals that we will be discussing. Although it is thought that we humans possessed tails once upon a time, humans have evolved past this phase and there is no straight use of a tail in us anymore.

A tail plays an important part in any mammal's life. The first use of a tail is to balance while traveling. Dogs and cats use this feature to balance as they walk with the most weight near the head. For an animal that walks on four legs and has to manage the weight of the whole body, this balancing feature is a savior. Even birds are known to have tails that they use to steer while in flight and also to balance while sitting in a branch or flying. Simple because of their tails, birds can do unspeakable maneuvers in the air. They are able to turn faster while flying and can navigate easily. The tails of birds are often feathery. They are also able to sometimes break mid-air with the help of their tails to either lose height or change direction. Peacocks on the other hand have different plans for their tails. Peacocks use their tails to attract mates of the opposite sex. Many animals also use this behavior during the mating season too. Fish also use the same technique of moving around in the water of the sea to navigate and keep balance. Dogs and cats use their tails to show emotions too.

Wailing of the tails by dogs is an easy method to show if the dog is happy or not. The position of the tail is an actual cue to know the emotions of these animals. Mammals, like horses, wring their tail to show agony and pain or when stressed. Calming horses down in this situation is the best way to protect everyone. Many animals use their tails as a defense mechanism. Some lose their tails to escape like a salamander or a lizard, but they grow them back quite quickly. Other animals use their tails for hunting down their prey and can attack viciously. This is seen all around the world in many species of snakes. Sea fish use their taisl to move forward while animals with prehensile tails use them to swing between trees. Some animals even use the tail to swat flies and insects roaming around them. Alligators use the tail to store fat.

Ring-tailed lemur walking in the forest.

Why do grassland animals have long tails?

Animals living in the grasslands have longer tails to help them stay balanced. The longer the tail, the better the balance for these animals from grasslands.

A tail of an animal living in the grasslands can measure almost the same length as the body. There are even animals whose tails can be as long as four or five times the body. Imagine the wonder of seeing such an animal running about! Giraffes are high and they are as high as a tree. Obviously, to balance that height, a long tail is needed. Giraffes have those in their arsenal and the tail has a tuft of black hair in the end which helps in swatting flies. Snakes have longer tails to help them move about and attack if threatened by someone. They are vicious yet protected. Rats, lemurs, lizards, and geckos have long tails as they need them to move about in the grasslands. Monkeys too have prehensile tails to cling to trees easily without using their other limbs. Prehensile tails are used to collect food, swing, and balance while sitting. There are also birds that have long contrasting tails to attract others in the grasslands. Giraffes have the longest tails of all mammals.

Why do animals have ringed tails?

There is so much to wonder and stare at in nature and there are many reasons why we are in awe of everything. Many animals have stripes in their tails, also called ringed tails. More than half of the order Carnivora have ringed tails. Ringed tails make the shape more difficult to spot in the background which is probably the evolutionary advantage it has from its plain tail counterparts.

This theory of blending in to the environment is similar to the color patterns of zebras and tigers which helps them camouflage well in wildlife too. Tails are the most visible features in an animal, and to keep them hidden makes a lot of sense for the animal. Let's take an example of a raccoon. The black eye mask and ringed tail are the main physical features of a raccoon. Scientists believe that the pattern on the tails of raccoons is meant to give an optical illusion, which can lead to confusion. The predators of raccoons usually hunt under low-light conditions as raccoons are nocturnal. The raccoon will have the best chance to escape as the tail will be illuminated in the dark because of the stripes and the predators will attack the tail first, keeping the raccoon safe.

Why do arctic animals have tails?

Tails have various purposes in different animals and for animals that live in the colder regions of the world, their tails protect them from severe freezing temperatures.

There are various animal species that have adapted to the freezing temperatures of Arctic areas. We will take the example of Arctic foxes. They are known to live in the Arctic circle and winter in these areas is unlike any other place of the globe. They have long and fluffy tails. These tails act like a blanket in these cold conditions as the foxes wrap their tails around to keep them warm when sleeping. Apart from their tails, their bodies are acclimatized with fur too for the outside temperature of the Arctic. The thick coat of the tails helps all animals living in these cold areas as they can easily wrap the fur around their noses to keep them warm.

Here at Kidadl, we have carefully created lots of interesting family-friendly facts for everyone to enjoy! If you liked our suggestions for why do animals have tails then why not take a look at are birds warm blooded, or are black diamonds real.

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Written by Ritwik Bhuyan

Bachelor of Arts specializing in English

Ritwik Bhuyan picture

Ritwik BhuyanBachelor of Arts specializing in English

A skilled content writer, Ritwik holds a Bachelor's degree in English from Delhi University. He has refined his writing abilities through his past experience at PenVelope and his current role at Kidadl. In addition to his proficiency in writing, Ritwik has pursued his passion for flying by achieving CPL training and becoming a licensed commercial pilot. This diverse skill set highlights his commitment to exploring multiple fields. Ritwik's experience in the aviation industry has provided him with a unique perspective and attention to detail, which he brings to his writing.

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