Think Out Loud

Research from OSU and Hoopa Valley Tribe sheds new light on the reclusive ringtail

By Gemma DiCarlo (OPB)
Feb. 26, 2024 11:17 p.m.

Broadcast: Tuesday, Feb. 27

An animal that looks like a cross between a lemur and a fox perches on a tree branch.

The ringtail is a big-eyed, bushy-tailed relative of the raccoon whose range extends from northern Mexico to Southern Oregon. It’s a reclusive species, but research from the Hoopa Valley Tribe and Oregon State University sheds new light on their habitat and behavior.

Jonathan Armstrong, Oregon State University


The ringtail is a big-eyed, bushy-tailed relative of the raccoon whose range extends from northern Mexico to Southern Oregon. The squirrel-sized carnivores are active during the night and spend the day resting in hollowed-out trees. It’s a reclusive species, but a recent study from the Hoopa Valley Tribe and Oregon State University shed new light on the ringtail’s habitat and behavior. By understanding which trees the animals choose to rest in, researchers and tribal members hope to better inform forest management practices in Southern Oregon and Northern California.

Sean Matthews is a wildlife ecologist with OSU’s Institute for Natural Resources. He joins us with more details on the study’s findings.

Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller:  This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. The ringtail is a big-eyed bushy-tailed relative of the raccoon. Their range extends from Northern Mexico to Southern Oregon, but you’re not likely to see them. First of all, they’re relatively rare, and second, they’re reclusive critters, omnivores who are active during the night and spend their days resting in hollowed-out trees. A recent study from the Hoopa Valley Tribe and Oregon State University sheds some new light on ringtail’s habitat and behavior. This research could inform the Tribe’s forest management practices. Sean Matthews is a wildlife ecologist with OSU’s Institute for Natural Resources. He joins us with more details on ringtails and this new study. It’s great to have you in the studio.

Sean Matthews:  Thanks for having me, Dave.

Miller:  Could you give us a sense for what ringtails look like?

MatthewsSure. So ringtails are about the size of a squirrel. They are likened to…they kind of look like a cat but a really small cat. They have these giant eyes that you referred to because they’re nocturnal. So they’re out, active at night. They rely on those big eyes to take in what limited light is out there at night. And they have these giant ears as well. So they’re really adorable. I definitely encourage listeners to look them up. But also they’re really dark. Their coat is really dark on the top and then they have really lighter fur underneath. Then really distinctively are these alternating white and black bands on the tail that make them really striking.

Miller:  What are examples of their favorite habitat? I mentioned a pretty big swath of Western North America where they live, not Northwestern Oregon, but Southern Oregon all the way down to Mexico. So what are some of the places where they’re happy to live?

MatthewsYeah, they’re pretty wide ranging, like you said, so in the desert Southwest, like in Mexico, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. They’re primarily in desert ecosystems. So there, they really rely on rock piles and things like that to spend time, hunt prey, and avoid predators. But the northern extent of their range in southern Oregon is on the western side of Oregon about just south of Grants Pass area. That’s the northern extent of their range and very similar to where we studied ringtails in Northern California.

And there they live in a much different habitat. They live primarily in forests that are dominated by Douglas fir trees that we all know and love here in Oregon, but also forests that have hardwood understory, like tan oak or black oak that we know here in Northern Oregon as well.

Miller:  Who are they competing with for food and who sees them as food?

Matthews:  Yeah, great question. So they definitely live in a rich kind of carnivore community, wherever they live. But in the Pacific Northwest, in Oregon and California, they occupy space with things like gray foxes and with fisher.

Miller:  Meaning that they’re competing with foxes and fisher for what, smaller critters?

Matthews:  Absolutely. Yeah. So they’re competing for things. Ringtails primarily eat things like mice, small rats, wood rats and things like that, which these other carnivores are also competing for as well. They’re also competing for space too, and part of the study that we did was, they live in these hollowed-out trees. And other critters like fishers, for example, also look for those spaces as well.

Miller:  Who are they hiding from?

MatthewsThey’re hiding from all kinds of critters. Lots of things can eat a squirrel-sized animal. All the things from fisher, fox, coyote, bobcat, mountain lion, even owls can eat a ringtail.

Miller:  You’ve described what seems like a good amount of ecological knowledge about this species. How well would you say they are known and understood already, compared to some of the other animals you’ve just mentioned?

Matthews:  Yeah, we don’t know a lot about ringtails. We get a lot of knowledge from traditional ecological knowledge from tribes that we work with, which is a huge source of information. And western science is slowly catching up to that knowledge. But ringtails are a species of conservation concern in Oregon and California, at the state level. But federally, since they do have such a wide range,

they aren’t really a concern at the federal level, say for threatened and endangered species status. Hence there isn’t really a lot of money going towards ringtails.

But in the regions we work, in Northern California and Southern Oregon, many tribal communities are really interested in ringtails because they are seen as a relative and also serve as a source of regalia material for dances and other ceremonies that happen annually.

Miller:  So I want to turn to that partnership because it really does seem like one of a number of interesting aspects of this study. As I noted it was spearheaded by the Hoopa Valley Tribe and your study took place on their lands. Why did they want to do this work?

MatthewsThe Hoopa Tribe is really connected culturally to a lot of resources on the reservation and their ancestral territory. And ringtail being one of those. But on the flip side, the Tribe is also what’s referred to as a timber tribe. So they rely on a timber-based economy, like many communities in Oregon and Northern California rely on the extraction of timber, cutting of logs and selling of those logs for income. For the Tribe as well, it’s one of the primary sources of income for individual tribal members. So it’s a pretty major economic driver for the reservation and for the Tribe. And so they’re trying to balance these cultural desires and cultural interests and preserving species of cultural concern while also maintaining this timber-based economy.


Miller:  And just to underline and to make sure I understand this too, based on what you said earlier, this is not a listed species federally, nor at the state level, although you said it’s a species of conservation concern. So for the Hoopa Tribe, their interest in this was not because they want to make sure that they are following Endangered Species Act prescriptions. Timber harvests are necessary for their economic vitality right now. But they also want to make sure that they’re not destroying the habitat of this animal that is important to their lives and their culture?

MatthewsThat’s exactly right.

Miller:  So how did you go about doing the study? I mean, what did you actually do for this study?

MatthewsWe really wanted to find out where ringtails are hanging out. Like I said, they’re nocturnal and so they spend their days resting. In areas in the desert Southwest it’s in rock piles. In Northern California and Southern Oregon it’s usually in trees. But we were curious to know what kind of trees that they are living in so that we can hand that information then off to tribal foresters so when they’re going out mapping out where they want to cut trees, they have a sense for what they might want to save on the landscape.

We used live traps to trap ringtails. We’d set those out at night baited with a leg of chicken and the ringtails would go in, we’d check those traps in the morning and then immobilize the ringtail and put a radio collar on them. That transmits a signal that we can then listen to with a receiver, an antenna. Unlike playing music, it just plays a beep and we listen for kind of the loudest beep as we turn the antenna around and hike to where the ringtail is hanging out, during the day.

Miller:  I saw a picture of a ringtail with a radio collar on in one of the articles about your study. And I have to say it’s not a small radio collar. I mean, I don’t know if it were the sort of human equivalent, it would be a really chunky piece of hardware. How do you know that that intervention itself doesn’t change their behavior?

MatthewsYeah, absolutely. That’s a big consideration in any study that we do. We really want to try and align the questions that we have with the least invasive method possible. So that is something we think about and really try to address. There are benchmarks, for instance, for a radio collar. We never wanna add anything, but particularly a radio collar, that weighs much more than 5% of the overall animal’s body weight. So we take that into consideration. We can also look at other data that is not invasively collected to see, do animals that have a radio collar on, say, have lower survival rates than animals that don’t? That’s not something we did as part of this study. But it is something that other studies have considered and weighed.

Miller:  What did you find about where these Northern California ringtails wanted to spend their days?

Matthews:  We were not surprised to find that they do tend to hang out in older forests. So forests that have had a chance for big trees to grow, the occasional storm coming in knocking limbs off of those trees, and fungus getting into those wounds of the tree hollowing out a cavity that the ringtail can use. What did surprise us though was that ringtails, at least on the Hoopa [Valley] Reservation, did use some younger forests as well, forests that had been recently cut in the last 10, 15, 20 years for lumber.

We were kind of surprised by this but as we thought about it more, it really made sense in that the Tribe is really pretty progressive as far as the number of trees they leave on the landscape, the number of standing dead trees they leave following timber management. Our suspicion is that there were enough of these older trees left on the landscape following a timber sale that ringtails were still able to make a living in those landscapes. Where in other systems, where they’re, say, harvesting more trees or not leaving some of those older trees, they just don’t tend to exist in those forests anymore.

Miller:  This is just one study, and scientists I’ve talked to in the past are sometimes loath to make broad pronouncements based on one study. But nevertheless, with that [said], I’ll go on with my question. What advice, if any, did you give to foresters in the Tribe? Like, given that you are going to be cutting trees down, if you want to think about the health of ringtail populations, this is what you should do?

Matthews:  Yeah, first and foremost, it was pretty validating for the Tribe to realize that places where they had harvested were still suitable for ringtails. Ringtails were still using those areas. And so it was validating that some of their practices are still amenable to ringtails persisting. We were also able, since we were hiking to individual trees, to get a sense for what those trees look like, what species they were, how large they were, and what types of cavities that the ringtails were using.

So we were able to hand that information off to tribal foresters as well so that they can go in with this gestalt. What is a ringtail really looking for? And as I’m going through and deciding, yes, we’re going to cut that tree. No, we’re gonna save that tree because it looks like a ringtail tree because it’s this species. It’s about this size. It looks like it has some limbs that have broken off in the last five or 10 years. That might be a good ringtail tree.

Miller:  And might their management be that tree specific that they would say, “Well, we actually know, based on this hollow and this species and this size, that looks like a good future ringtail home, so we are not going to cut this tree.” I mean, is that the way this management could go?

Matthews:  Very much so. So they’ll look at a map and say, “We’re going to harvest this area, this patch of ground, say, in this watershed.” But then individual foresters are going into those areas to really lay out a timber sale and say, “You know, we’re going to cut this tree. We’re going to cut this tree. We’re gonna save this tree for these reasons.”

Miller:  And we’ll put the plastic tape around these but not around these?

Matthews:  Exactly.

Miller:  What’s next for you in terms of ringtail research? What are the other big questions that you’re hoping to answer yet?

Matthews:  There are a lot of questions that we’re still trying to get at, particularly related to one of your earlier questions, thinking about how ringtails are interacting with these other species. Obviously, they don’t exist in a vacuum. And part of this study was looking specifically at how ringtail and fishers are interacting, fishers being also another species, maybe a little bit higher conservation concern than ring- tails. But how fishers and ringtails might be interacting on the landscape.

Some of our other research using other methods have also looked at this interaction between ringtail and fisher and how they might be interacting. And so we’re really interested in some of those aspects of how these different species are interacting and then in what types of forests they’re interacting in and [whether] there are types of forests that might exacerbate those interactions, negative interactions that might influence their overall persistence.

Miller:  We just have about a minute left. But is it too much of a leap to say that one of the reasons that ringtails might be doing all right is because they’re relatively generalist? That they are a species that can handle being in an arid desert and in a more temperate forest?

Matthews:  Yes, they do seem fairly adaptable for sure. And I think that’s one thing we’re just starting to understand is how adaptable they are. And so I think as we think about forest management, whether it be on the reservation or other landscapes, we just need to be thoughtful about it. I often use the adage, “How far can we bend it till it breaks,” and know where that inflection point is.

Miller:  Sean Matthews, thanks very much.

Matthews:  Thank you, Dave.

Miller:  Sean Matthews is a wildlife ecologist with Oregon State University’s Institute for Natural Resources.

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