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What is the Purpose of a Tail in Animals?

Tricia Christensen
By
Updated May 21, 2024
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An animal’s tail can serve the animal in many different ways. When this question is asked, you principally see explanations of it as a counterbalance measure for the animal. Arboreal species may require very specific balance when walking on thin tree-limbs. Even in a cat, where the tail is not at all times useful, its mechanism allows it to “land on its feet” if the cat falls.

Other arboreal species like the possum have tails that can actually help them hang onto trees and catch branches as needed. Many primates, like lemurs, also use it to enhance tree-climbing ability and to provide balance. Yet balance is not the only explanation.

In many new world monkeys, tails are prehensile. The prehensile tail allows the animal to snatch or grab with it. It can grab onto tree limbs, or even pull food off bushes. It really serves as an extra hand. Some animals have what is called a partially prehensile tail. It can’t be used for food gathering, but can be used for holding on to trees. Animals with partially prehensile tails include rats, tree porcupines, and anteaters, as well as reptiles like snakes and many species of lizards and newts.

A tail can serve completely different functions for an animal. Obviously a horse doesn’t need to snatch or grab at trees. Horses, and other farm animals like cows, use tails primarily to aid in their comfort. Their swishing action can help keep annoying flies from biting the animal. Many others animals have this fly swatter action, like the giraffe, zebra and elephant.

The tail and its feathers in birds can serve in many ways. First, in birds that fly, it may be used for direction and better aerodynamics when flying. Flightless birds, like penguins, use them when swimming to change directions. Tails in male birds often help to attract mates. Nowhere is this more evident than in the peacock, which has elaborate feathers meant to stir the interest of peahens.

In marine animals, tails are extremely important. Powerful thrusts of the dolphin's tail push it forward more quickly. In many fish species, it also promotes better and faster swimming and directional capabilities.

The tail in the lizard may be partially prehensile, but is also used as a defense mechanism. When lizards attempt to escape predators, many of them have tails that can safely detach. This allows the lizard to escape a predator that grabs it. Further, the lizard can grow a new one after it is detached, so it can live to defend itself another day.

There are some very specialized tails in the animal kingdom. The rattle at the end of the rattlesnake’s is a warning to predators to stay away. Deer use their tails to communicate potential danger. The powerful sting on the end of the scorpion’s tail makes for an excellent weapon, as does the long strong tail of the crocodile. Badgers have flat ones useful for swimming and conferring warnings, and dogs use theirs to communicate emotions. Specific benefits in each animal are often beautifully adapted to the animal’s needs.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the primary functions of tails in animals?

Tails serve various functions depending on the species. They can be used for balance, especially in arboreal animals like monkeys, who navigate trees with agility. In other species, tails aid in locomotion, such as in fish or kangaroos. Tails also serve as communication tools, signaling mood or social status, and in some cases, like in lizards, they can be a defensive mechanism, detaching to escape predators.

How does a tail help an animal maintain balance?

An animal's tail acts as a counterbalance during movement, particularly in species that walk on two legs or climb trees. For instance, when a cheetah runs and makes sharp turns, its tail helps stabilize and steer its body. Similarly, birds use their tails to adjust their flight path, and squirrels use their bushy tails for balance while navigating through treetops.

Can tails be used for communication among animals?

Yes, tails are vital for animal communication. Dogs wag their tails to express emotions like excitement or submission. Peacocks display their extravagant tail feathers to attract mates. Bees even use their tail region to perform a 'waggle dance' to communicate the location of food sources to their hive mates. These behaviors are crucial for social interaction and survival in the animal kingdom.

Do any animals use their tails for warmth or protection?

Some animals use their tails for warmth and protection. For example, Arctic foxes wrap their bushy tails around their bodies to conserve heat during cold weather. Many mammals also use their tails to swat away insects and parasites. Additionally, some ground-nesting birds, like the killdeer, use a broken-wing display, which includes tail movements, to distract predators from their nests.

Are there any animals that have adapted to use their tails as tools?

Certain animals have indeed adapted their tails to function as tools. New World monkeys, like spider monkeys, have prehensile tails that act as a fifth limb, grasping branches to aid in climbing. Elephants have a tip on their tails with coarse hairs to swat insects, and some seahorses use their tails to anchor themselves to corals or seaweed in turbulent waters.

How does tail loss as a defense mechanism work in some species?

In some species, tail autotomy, or voluntary tail loss, is a defense mechanism. When a predator grabs the tail of an animal like a gecko, the tail detaches, and its continued movement distracts the predator, allowing the gecko to escape. The lost tail can regenerate over time, although it may not be identical to the original. This remarkable adaptation enhances the animal's chances of survival.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a AllThingsNature contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By anon347372 — On Sep 06, 2013

Can anyone tell me if they know of any kind of fish that moves its tail in an up and down motion like a whale or dolphin and not from side to side?

By andee — On Nov 16, 2012

I didn't realize that a cat uses their tail to help them land on their feet if they fall. I once had a cat that lost part of her tail when she got in a fight. I thought the tail would grow back but it didn't. She looked kind of funny with half of a tail.

This makes me wonder about the cats you see that have their tails bobbed. Does this prevent them from landing on their feet if they fall?

By Mykol — On Nov 15, 2012

I live in the country and we often see deer walking across our property. If they are relaxed and not in any danger their small white tail is down. If you see them instantly flip their tail up, you know they sense some kind of danger. When you see the back side of them as they are running away their tail is sticking straight up.

My dog uses her tail to let me know how happy she is to see me. Sometimes her tail is moving so much I wonder how she can stay balanced. She is a big dog and her tail can also be kind of destructive in the house. Anything that is close to her tail can be knocked over if it isn't very heavy.

By bagley79 — On Nov 14, 2012
In the summer when it is hot and flies are bad, our horses are constantly moving their tails. Even when we spray them down with fly spray you see them swishing their tails a lot. This is a natural way for them to get rid of the flies that pester them all season long.
By julies — On Nov 14, 2012

@cloudel -- If you have never heard a beaver slapping their tail on the water before, I can see how you would be scared. It is amazing how loud that sound can be.

We have a large pond in front of our house where a beaver has built a home. The first time I heard the beaver slap the water with her tail I jumped! Once I figured out what it was I relaxed and was fascinated by it.

Several times when we were sitting out on the deck in the evening we could hear the beaver use her tail as a warning. If I was an animal in close vicinity I know I would not want to stick around very long.

By DylanB — On Oct 22, 2012

If you ask my dog, he will tell you that cow tails are for pulling! I've seriously seen him chasing cows in the pasture and nipping at their tails.

I know this is dangerous, because he could get kicked in the head. When I catch him, I discourage this behavior, but I have a feeling that it goes on when I'm not around.

He also pulls the tails of my other dogs when they are play fighting. It just doesn't seem like he's playing fair. He has brought a couple of them down by yanking them around in this way.

By Kristee — On Oct 21, 2012

It's amazing how many horseflies congregate on the back of one horse or one cow. They have to keep their tails going constantly to keep them from biting.

I've used my ponytail in a similar manner before. If I'm being chased by a horsefly, I will just whip my ponytail around in a circle until it leaves me alone. I don't think I've ever actually hit one with it, but it has kept me from getting bitten.

By shell4life — On Oct 21, 2012

@cloudel – I've also heard that beavers store their fat inside their tails. This helps keep them warm when they're swimming in cold water.

Otters also use their tails in water. They have long, thick tails that they use to steer themselves with as the travel through rivers and streams.

By cloudel — On Oct 20, 2012

Beaver tails are really useful. They can warn other beavers of predators near the water.

I was frightened the first time I heard a beaver hitting the water with its tail. It was dark, and my friend and I were on a pier over a pond. We heard loud slapping, and we thought that someone was throwing big rocks into the water, but no one was supposed to be in the area but us.

We ran home to her dad and told him about it, and he let us know that it was a beaver's tail that had made the noise. Relieved, we went back to try and find the beaver, but it had already left the area. I guess it may have perceived us as a threat and warned all the other beavers to flee, too.

By anon235817 — On Dec 19, 2011

I think that in reptiles such as crocodiles and dinosaurs, part of the tail contains the muscles that move the thigh backward when running. The mammalian tail does not seem to have this function.

By pleats — On Oct 11, 2010

In birds, the tail can work kind of like the T tail on the back of an airplane, in that it provides balance and aerodynamics as they fly.

The shape of the tail can also be used for identification, although of course they don't have the tail numbers like those painted on an airplane's T tail -- you just have to rely on the shape and silhouette of the tail for identification purposes.

By FirstViolin — On Oct 11, 2010

When a lizard loses it's tail section as part of its defense mechanism, do they always grow it back, or is it kind of a one-time thing?

I've always wondered about that, because if it doesn't grow back then that seems like a fairly inefficient means of protection.

Also, when the tail section comes off, does is bleed? Because if it does, wouldn't that just lead the predator to the lizard by making a trail?

Do any lizard experts out there know?

By lightning88 — On Oct 11, 2010

Did you know that there's actually a fish with three tails?

It's called the Atlantic triple tail, and has three rounded fins, which leads to it's distinctive "triple tail" look.

Like other fish, they use their "tails" for movement and thrust in the ocean.

However, their three fins also serve as part of their unique defense mechanism, in which they lay over on their sides near the top of the water, so that they look like a group of floating leaves or debris.

Just another use for a tail, I guess!

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen

Writer

With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a AllThingsNature contributor, Tricia...
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