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What Is the Purpose of a Tail in Animals?

Monkeys can use their tails like an extra limb.
Scorpions can use their tails as a weapon.
Dolphins use their tails to propel them through water.
Zebras keep flies and other pests away with their tails.
Elephants use their tails to keep away flies.
Snakes can hold onto trees with their partially prehensile tails.
A giraffe uses its tail to keep flies away.
A newt has a partially prehensile tail.
Crocodiles use their tails as a weapon.
The tails of rats are prehensile, and they may also help keep the animal cool.
Deer communicate danger with their tails.
A male peacock's tail is used to attract a mate.
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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 16 April 2014
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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.

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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.

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Discuss this Article

anon347372
Post 13

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?

andee
Post 12

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?

Mykol
Post 11

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.

bagley79
Post 10
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.
julies
Post 9

@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.

DylanB
Post 8

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.

Kristee
Post 7

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.

shell4life
Post 6

@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.

cloudel
Post 5

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.

anon235817
Post 4

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

pleats
Post 3

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.

FirstViolin
Post 2

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?

lightning88
Post 1

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!

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