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North American Ringtail (Bassariscus astutus) Fact Sheet: Taxonomy & History

Taxonomic History & Nomenclature


  • First published description: Lichtenstein, 1830

Common name

  • Genus Bassariscus
    • Contains 2 species
      • Collectively known as ringtails (Wilson and Cole 2000)
      • B. sumichrasti, the true cacomistle
        • Inhabit more humid, tropical forests compared to the ringtail, B. astutus (Zeveloff 2002)
  • B. astutus has many common names:
    • Ringtail; commonly used
    • Ring-tailed cat; commonly used
      • From ringed tail and cat-like behavior (Poglayen-Neuwall 1990)
    • Civet cat, ring-tailed civet cat (Grinnel et al 1937; Taylor 1954)
      • Because of its musk; though not a true civet cat (Poglayen-Neuwall and Toweill 1988)
    • Cacomistle or cacomixtle (both Bassariscus species)
      • Also, Cacomixtle norteño, western cacomistle (Grinnel et al 1937; ITIS 2013; Wozencraft 2005)
      • From tlacomiztli, a Nathuatl Indian (Mexican tribe) word meaning "half mountain lion" (Zeveloff 2002)
    • Miner's cat (Grinnel et al 1937; Zeveloff 2002)
      • Often used by people to control rodent populations
    • Mico de noche or night monkey (Zeveloff 2002)
      • Regionally in Mexico
    • Mountain cat, cat squirrel, Pacific cat, band-tailed cat, coon cat, raccoon fox (Grinnel et al 1937 and others)

Scientific name

  • Etmology
    • Genus Bassariscus
      • Bassariscus from the diminutive Greek bassaris meaning "fox" (Gotch 1995)
    • Specific epithet astutus
      • astutus from Latin meaning "cunning" (Gotch 1995)

Evolutionary History

Procyonid family (from Zeveloff 2002 unless otherwise noted)

  • Includes raccoons, olingos, and coatis
  • May share a common ancestor with red pandas
  • Descended within the dog branch (Vulpavines) of carnivores
    • Vulpavines include dogs (canids), bears (ursids), weasels (mustelids) and their relatives
  • Most closely related to weasels; with strong affinities to bears as well
  • Eurasia likely center for evolution and diversification; c. 18-28 million years ago (Ma), during the end of the Oligocene (Zeveloff 2002; Helgen et al 2013)
    • Fossils from France and Germany record high diversity of procyonids
    • Relationships within the family are unclear (Decker and Wozencraft 1991; Zeveloff 2002)

North American colonization and diversification (from Zeveloff 2002)

  • Date to c.16-19 Ma
  • Migration across the Bearing Strait possible

Bassariscus fossils (form Poglayen-Neuwall and Toweill 1988)

  • Representatives of the genus from many locations dating to the Miocene
  • Fossil record considerable
    • Due to habit of using protective caves and rock crevices in arid locations
    • Diet preserved in fecal copperlite found in one Grand Canyon cave
      • Included 22 taxa: mammals, birds, lizards and snakes

Cultural History

Trapped by humans

  • Valued for its tail
    • Taken by trappers from Mexico to the Oregon line (Grinnel et al 1937)
  • Not a commonly trapped fur-bearing mammal (Taylor 1954)

Association with humans

  • Rodent control
    • Kept as a pet by early miners in the Sierra Nevada of California (Taylor 1954; Grinnel et al 1937)



Taxonomy (ITIS 2013; Wozencraft 2005)

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Mammalia

Order: Carnivora

Suborder: Caniformia - dog-like carnivores

Family: Procyonidae - procyonids (olingos, ringtails, coatis, raccoons)

Genus: Bassariscus - ringtails

Species: Bassariscus astutus (Lichtenstein, 1830)- ringtail, cacomixtle norteño

**Subspecies: B. a. arizonensis (Goldman, 1932)
Subspecies: B. a. astutus (Lichtenstein, 1830)
Subspecies: B. a. bolei (Goldman, 1945)
Subspecies: B. a. consitus (Nelson and Goldman, 1932)
Subspecies: B. a. flavus (Rhoads, 1893)
Subspecies: B. a. insulicola (Nelson and Goldman, 1909)
Subspecies: B. a. macdougalli (Goodwin, 1956)
Subspecies: B. a. nevadensis (Miller, 1913)
Subspecies: B. a. octavus (Hall, 1926)
Subspecies: B. a. palmarius (Nelson and Goldman, 1909)
Subspecies: B. a. raptor (Baird, 1859)
Subspecies: B. a. saxicola (Merriam, 1897)
Subspecies: B. a. willetti (Stager, 1950)
Subspecies: B. a. yumanensis (Huey, 1937)

**Revisions may be needed following genetic studies (Gary Roemer, personal communication, 2019)

An Early Artistic Rendering

painting of a ringtail

"Ring-Tailed Bassaris" - an early artistic work by W.E. Hitchock (1851). In: Audubon JJ, Bachman J, Audubon JW. 1851. The Quadrupeds of North America, Vol. 2. New York: V.G. Audubon.

Image credit: © Biodiversity Heritage Library, Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Page Citations

Decker and Wozencraft (1991)
Gotch (1995)
Grinnel et al (1937)
Helgen et al (2013)
ITIS (2013)
Poglayen-Neuwall (1990)
Poglayen-Neuwall and Toweill (1988)
Taylor (1954)
Wilson and Cole (2000)
Wozencraft (2005)
Zeveloff (2002)

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