The tail on a squirrel is a fascinating device that has a lot of uses. Those fluffy appendages help with balance, regulate body temperature, break their falls, are used for communication and even battle!
Keep reading to learn some pretty amazing ways that squirrels use their tails including Fighting Rattlesnakes!
The Tail Is In The Name!
The scientific name for most tree squirrels (sciurus) is based upon their tail. The name, Sciurus, comes from the Greek skia (shadow) and oura (tail) and refers to the squirrel “sitting in the shadow of its tail”.
- Eastern Grey Squirrel: Sciurus carolinis
- Western Grey Squirrel: Sciurus griseus
- Fox Squirrel: Sciurus niger
- Eurasian Red Squirrel: Sciurus vulgaris
If you have spent much time at all watching tree squirrels then you have undoubtedly seen one sitting in the classic pose with its tail curled up over its back.
The Tail Controls The Temperature!
A squirrel’s tail is an important thermo-regulatory device. The most basic temperature controlling functions of the tail is providing a source of shade in warm weather and protecting the animal from rain. The squirrel can wrap its tail around itself in winter for warmth as well.
On a more sophisticated level, a squirrel can control blood flow to the tail. When a squirrel is hot it can send excess blood to the tail for heat dissipation. When a squirrel is cold it can reduce blood flow to the tail to conserve heat.
Squirrels Use Their Tails As A Parachute!
You might have guessed that a squirrel uses its tail to help maintain its balance as it scampers through the tree tops but did you know that the tail also acts as a parachute if the squirrel takes a tumble?
According to Nu Sci magazine, “During a fall, the hairs on the tail separate in order to catch as much air as possible. This slows the squirrel’s fall and provides time for the squirrel to orientate itself for landing.”
Of course, not all squirrel’s have a safe landing when they fall from significant heights but every little bit of stopping power helps.
Squirrels Use Their Tails To Communicate!
Squirrels wag and flick their tails when they spot something dangerous. This behavior, called flagging, has been described as a way of communicating with other squirrels (Look out! I see something dangerous!) AND communicating with the potential predator (I see you! Don’t even try it!!). The flagging tail also helps the squirrel seem larger than it actually is is an attempt to discourage a predator.
It has also been suggested that squirrels flag their tails as a way of showing frustration. The video below highlights an interesting study out of the University of California, Berkeley where a researcher intentionally frustrated a bunch of squirrels in a non-threatening manner and observed their tail action. The more frustrated the squirrels became the more they flagged their tails!
Squirrels Use Their Tails to Fight Rattlesnakes!
This is seriously cool…or hot…depending on how you like to look at things 🙂
A researcher from the University of Nebraska discovered that California ground squirrels use their tails in a highly specific manner to combat rattlesnakes.
Whenever a ground squirrel spotted a snake of any variety it would flag its tail back and forth as a way of letting the snake know that it had been spotted.
However, if the snake was a venomous rattler then the squirrel would go one step farther. The ground squirrel would send extra blood to its tail to make it heat up and emit infrared energy. The infrared tail signature was easily seen with IR imaging cameras.
The rattlesnakes are able to pick up the thermal/IR signature of the squirrels tail and would often switch from a predatory to a defensive mode. Presumably the snake would realize that its ambush advantage had been lost and it would be in for a tough fight against a sharp set of teeth and claws if it tried to attack.
What is fascinating is that the squirrels would NOT increase its tail temperature in the presence of the non venomous Gopher snake which lacks heat seeking sensors.
Fish Love Squirrel Tails!
I never saw this one coming but it turns out that the hair on a squirrels tail is the perfect material for making fishing lures.
One of the premier fishing lure manufacturers, Mepps, pays hunters for squirrel tails either in cash or in trade for fishing equipment.
Mepps has tried all different types of fur, hair, plastics, etc and hasn’t found anything better for their lures than the hair from a squirrels tail.
I have no idea why fish are attracted to squirrel tails. Some fish love more than just the tail. A quick search on YouTube for “Bass Eats Squirrel” will pull up a few videos of our furry friends meeting an unfortunate end. This might be one reason that squirrels only swim when they have to!
What Happens When A Squirrel Loses Its Tail?
A squirrel losing its tail is a relatively common event. A squirrel can get its tail stuck between branches on fence boards while they are chasing each other and have the thing yanked right off. Squirrel can also lose their tails during a fight with a predator.
A squirrel can not regrow its tail. Once the tail is gone it stays gone and the poor fella just looks goofy.
Squirrels can live without their tail but are at more risk for an early death.
A squirrel without a tail will not be able to balance as well in the treetops and is at greater risk for a fall. This is especially dangerous as the squirrel won’t be able to use his tail to slow the descent.
A squirrel without a tail will not be able to use flagging to scare off predators making it more of a target.
Lastly, a squirrel without a tail has lost one of the mechanisms it uses to control body temperature making it more susceptible to the challenges of extreme heat or cold.