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10 Animals That Use Their Tails as Tools

Updated on July 9, 2018
Jana Louise Smit profile image

Jana is an amateur everything when it comes to space, nature and science. She loves exploring mysteries, both classic and new.

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10. Vesper Bats — Takeoff Booster

Most bats' tails are not immediately obvious, but they play an important role in how these soaring mammals take off. Vesper bats includes many common nocturnal species. When they launch themselves into flight, the animal's tail membranes provide lift and thrust; something that surprised researchers when it was first discovered. Bats actually flap their tails. Depending on the direction the bat wants to go, its tail and wings beat in a certain pattern and at varying speeds.

9. Kangaroo — Third Leg

In the past, the kangaroo's unusually big and strong tail was thought to exist only for support. When males fight, they sometimes sit back on their tails to kick an opponent with both hind legs. The tail also maintains an animal's balance during speedy hopping. The most surprising purpose is that kangaroos use their tail as an extra leg. When they suddenly need to run faster, the tail pushes off the ground with a greater combined force than all of its legs. This switches things around a bit. Instead of the tail, the kangaroo's front arms are now considered as the body parts that exist solely as a supportive structure.

8. Lizards — Back Breakers

Nearly every person has witnessed the unique ability of lizards to shed their tails when in danger. While the dancing piece of tail distracts the predator, the rest of the reptile scurries to safety. How it actually happens is not as simple as the tail just dropping off. In a dramatic move, the lizard amputates its own spine by using muscle contractions. The break happens inside one, weak vertebra.

In people, the same would be unthinkable but the creature's ability to regrow its own spine gives doctors hope for human back injuries. The amputated tail, a piece of spine that functions without blood or brain control, might one day be the key to improved spinal cord therapy in humans.

Tails as Distraction Devices

The Luna moth shakes its tails to produce sounds that distracts predators from delivering a fatal bite
The Luna moth shakes its tails to produce sounds that distracts predators from delivering a fatal bite | Source

7. Luna Moth — Bat Lure

The long tails of the Luna moth look beautiful but in reality, evolved as a survival trick. Bats love to snack on moths. The problem, from a moth's point of view, is that echolocation gives bats a deadly advantage. Once a bat lock on to an insect, few can escape. However, when a bat hunts a Luna, it usually ends up with a mouth full of tails and nothing else. The moth sacrifices its tails by fluttering them in such a way that the bat cannot resist their sound.

6. Geckos — Safety Brake

When geckos run up walls, they face a sheer vertical climb. The big-eyed creatures rely on their feet to stick to the surface but sometimes, due to the speed at which they move, geckos slip. The reason why falling geckos are so rare? The moment the little daredevil loses traction, it slaps down its tail. This acts like an emergency brake or “extra stick” that allows the gecko to quickly move forward again with renewed traction. Additionally, when they do fall, lizards use their tails like a mid-air rudder to ensure that they land on their feet.

5. Iranian Viper — Bait

In Iran, a snake has evolved to catch certain birds by using its tail as bait. The rare spider-tailed viper's bizarre extremity has confused researchers for a long time. The fleshy tail sprouts scales that look like legs and only when the snake was observed in the wild did the creepy (and genius) truth emerge. The reptile wagged its tail at spider-loving warbler birds. Once the hungry bird was in striking distance, the perfectly camouflaged viper struck fast – under 0.2 seconds. Interestingly, the snake only preyed on migratory birds which could mean that the local feathery population had already caught on to the lethal trick.

4. Dolphins — Language

Dolphins “speak” a language so complex that researchers still battle to unravel it. The language is mostly vocal, made up of complicated squeaks, clicks and whistles. Just like human body language, dolphins also talk with their bodies. In particular, tail slaps can get very chatty. A message can be communicated with a gesture as simple as a single swish or as complicated as a three-part movement pattern. Interestingly, how often dolphins repeat identical physical signals have been found to be very similar to how frequently humans use certain words.

Daddy Day Care

The male weedy seadragon uses his tail to keep his eggs safe until they hatch
The male weedy seadragon uses his tail to keep his eggs safe until they hatch | Source

3. Weedy Sea-Dragon — Nursery

In Australian waters (and aquariums across the world) drifts a mysterious creature. The weedy sea-dragon is a fish, but can easily be mistaken for a piece of kelp. Their leaf-like fins and horsey snouts are not the only things that make them special — in this family, Dad runs a kindergarten on his tail. Since males carry the red eggs until the babies hatch, they are the ones who are considered pregnant and give birth, not Mom. She merely arranges the clutch on her mate's tail and that's the full sum of the female's parental interest.

2. Thresher Shark — Whip Master

Thresher sharks have long whip-like tails that are terrifyingly practical. Using a hunting strategy unique to sharks, threshers swim up to fish shoals and slap together a dinner. Literally. These sharks use two ways to stun or kill fish during a whipping attack. Some prefer to charge the prey before suddenly breaking and unleashing a whip that goes over the shark's head. Others twist their bodies and whip sideways. A successful slap can incapacitate up to seven fish, which is then rounded up by the predator.

Both male and female threshers grow tails up to half the length of their bodies and some species grow up to six meters long. Those lucky sharks have whips around three meters long.

1. Peacock — Infrasound Messages

In 2015, a Canadian researcher was at a zoo when he noticed a peacock behaving strangely. The male was shaking its tail at a wall. On a hunch, the scientist recorded 46 peacocks who displayed their famous tails to see if the original male was somehow listening to something.

As it turned out, the vibrating feathers, which sounds like rustling grass to people, also produce a loud infrasound humans cannot hear. Other peacocks can, even though science can't explain how. When the recordings were played to other peacocks, males became more vocal and females more alert. This ability may be the male peacock's way of signaling warnings to boys and invitations to girls. The whole thing starts to make sense when one looks at their natural habitat in India and Sri-Lanka; a bushy affair where the birds can't always see each other. Infrasound, however, allows the birds to communicate blind.

© 2018 Jana Louise Smit

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