The prehensile tail is a characteristic feature that differentiates New World monkeys from the Old World monkeys. While the latter are native to Africa and Asia, the former live in Central and South America, and some regions of Mexico. It is believed that this adaptation in New World monkeys might be due to the presence of dense forests in South America. Often, these monkeys use their tails like an extra arm or leg to hold on to branches.
There is no dearth of examples on how various animals have adapted or developed physical and behavioral attributes to be able to survive in their environment. Prehensility of an appendage or organ is one such adaptation wherein an appendage/organ is used by the animals for holding or grasping objects. Some animals have prehensile feet, trunk, nose, arms (in case of octopuses), or tail. Some animals have prehensile tails. Mammals, reptiles, and birds use tails for varied reasons. More often than not, mammals use their tails for balancing when they are running or jumping. Dogs also use their tails to communicate. Fish use their tails for locomotion, whereas birds' tails help maintain balance and stability in flight. Animals with prehensile tails use their tails to hold on to objects. They can curl their tail around objects such as branches and hold on to those objects for balance. Tails can be prehensile or partially prehensile. More often than not, this feature helps arboreal animals (animals who spend most of their time on trees) to grab and eat food. In case of partially prehensile tails, the tail helps them climb or dangle from branches.
Animals with Prehensile Tails
Red Howler Monkey
Black and Gold Howler Monkeys
As mentioned earlier, prehensile tail is a feature of many New World monkeys. The term 'New World Monkeys' refers to monkeys that belong to five families called Callitrichidae, Cebidae, Aotidae, Pitheciidae, and Atelidae. These are divided into two groups. The first group Callithricidae comprises marmosets and tamarins, which are monkeys with claws. These don't have prehensile tails. The second group, Cebidae, is composed of four subfamilies called Cebinae (Squirrel and Capuchin monkey), Aotidae (Douroucouli (Night/owl monkey), Atelinae (Howler monkeys, Spider monkeys, Woolly monkeys, and Woolly Spider monkey), and Pitheciidae (Uakari, Titi, and Saki monkeys). These monkeys have flatter noses. Also, they have nails. Monkeys belonging to the Atelidae family have prehensile tails that helps them grab food and dangle on branches. They also have a bare tactile patch or a friction pad that aids in this process. Spider monkeys don't have thumbs; they use their prehensile tail to swing from tree to tree and hang from branches while looking for food.
Opossums are placed under the category of marsupial animals, as they have a pouch. They belong to Didelphidae family. The long, hairless tail of opossums is believed to be prehensile. Though they are not always arboreal, there's some evidence that suggests that they use their tails to grab leaves or other items that they may use for making their nest. Baby opossums might sometimes use their tails to hang from branches, but only for short periods. Mostly, adults use the tail as an aid for climbing. Ringtail opossum and common brushtail opossum are believed to have tails that are slightly more prehensile.
Anteaters are mammals that belong to the order Pilosa and suborder Vermilingua. As their name suggests, these mammals eat ants. They are also known to eat termites. The Silky Anteater and the northern and southern tamandua have prehensile tails, which assists them in climbing trees or holding on to branches or other objects.
Also arboreal in nature, kinkajous belong to Potos genus and Procyonidae family. These live in the tropical forests of South and Central America, as well as some regions of Mexico. They use their prehensile tail like another limb. It helps them maintain balance while they move from one tree to another. Also, they can be seen hanging on the branches using their tail. They also use their tail to keep themselves warm, while they sleep.
These are porcupines that belong to Coendou and Chaetomys genus. These porcupines live in Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Guiana, Paraguay, Trinidad, and Venezuela. Prehensile-tailed porcupines are tree-dwelling. Often difficult to spot, these arboreal creatures use their long, curved claws for climbing the trees. Their tail is long and bare. It allows them to hold on to branches and maintain their balance when they are moving through the trees. Their tail allows them to hang upside down, while they use their feet to grasp food.
Also known as bearcats, binturong belongs to the Viverridae family and Arctictis genus. It is an Old World animal. Its scientific name is Arctictis binturong. It is native to regions of South Asia and Southeast Asia. It uses its prehensile tail to cling on to branches. The tail also helps in maintaining balance. Its tail is about 26-27 inches long, whereas its head and body is 28-33 inches long. Its tail is quite bushy. Binturongs use the tail like a limb to climb on branches and hold on to branches.
Other Old World Animals with Prehensile Tails
Harvest Mouse (Micromys minutus) belongs to the Muridae family and Muroidea superfamily. It is small rodent that is native to Asia and Europe. Its prehensile tail is almost 2-3 inches long, which is equal to the length of its body. Its broad feet and tail assists in climbing trees and holding on to stems or branches, while foraging for food.
Also called scaly anteaters, pangolins belong to the Manis genus and Manidae family. Native to West and Central Africa, these are semi-arboreal creatures. The tree pangolin often using its prehensile tail for balancing, while it's walking on its hind legs. It has a fully prehensile tail.
Animals with Partially Prehensile Tails
Animals with partially prehensile tails use their tails just for climbing and hanging from branches, unlike animals with fully prehensile tails who use their tails to grab or manipulate objects while foraging for food. Here's some information on animals with partially prehensile tails.
Native to regions of Central America and South America, capuchin monkeys belong to Cebidae family. Being arboreal animals, most of their time is spent on trees. Studies on their behavior have revealed that they are quite intelligent. Unlike other New World monkeys with fully prehensile tails, their tail is less flexible. Moreover, their tail doesn't have friction pads that allow a stronger grip. Hence, they use their tails just for dangling from trees or climbing.
Some of the New World porcupines are arboreal in nature. Belonging to Coendou genus, these porcupines live in tropical South America and Mexico. They use their hind feet and the fleshy pad on the inner side of the foot to hold on to branches. They are good climbers. Their prehensile tail also helps them in climbing.
Common Brushtail Possum
Possums are marsupial animals that are native to Australia, New Guinea, and Sulawesi. They come out to look for food at night. They are semi-arboreal, and can be found living in hollow trees. Their tails are long and somewhat prehensile. The bare skin on the underside of the tail provides a stronger grip. Their prehensile tail and webbed toes of the hind feet helps them climb up tree trunks. The sugar glider is a type of nocturnal possum that is native to Australia and Tasmania. It has a partially prehensile tail.
Solomon Island Skink
The only type of skink that is completely herbivorous, the prehensile-tailed skink or Corucia zebrata is native to the tropical rainforests of the Solomon Islands, Australia. This animal can be found in tree canopies. Its strong, muscular, and partially prehensile tail, strong digits, and sharp claws enables it to move around tree canopies. Solomon Island skink wraps its tail around branches for balance.
While the ability to change colors or camouflage is the most characteristic feature of chameleons, they also have other interesting features. For instance, their zygodactyl (two toes projecting forward and two projecting backward) feet help them grasp the branches with a better grip. They also have a prehensile tail that they can use as a limb or tool to wrap around branches. This provides stability and balance, and prevents them from falling off the trees.
Crested geckos are lizards that belong to Correlophus genus and Diplodactylidea family. Their scientific name is Correlophus ciliatus. They are commonly referred to as eyelash geckos due to the eyelash-like crest of skin over their eyes. They have a prehensile tail, which they might coil around branches or objects for balance. They can shed their tail in the presence of predators. However, their tail doesn't grow back like some other types of geckos.
Arboreal Alligator Lizard
Arboreal alligator lizards belong to the genus Abronia and Anguidae family. These are New World animals that are native to regions of Mexico, Central America, and South America. Besides the arboreal alligator lizards, Southern alligator lizard and Texas alligator lizard are known to possess prehensile tails.
Salamanders are amphibians that belong to the order Caudata. They are similar to lizards in appearance. Some of the species have small hind limbs or no hind limbs at all. This gives them an eel-like appearance. Some of the salamanders found in the forests of North American possess prehensile tails that help them in climbing. The examples of salamanders with a prehensile tail include clouded salamander (Aneides ferreus), the arboreal salamander (Aneides lugubris), the large Red Hills salamander (Phaeognathus hubrichti), the wandering salamander (Aneides vagrans), and the cave salamander (Eurycea lucifuga).
Seahorses and Pipefish
Seahorses belong to the Hippocampus genus and Syngnathidae family. This genus includes more than 50 species. They don't have a caudal fin; they use their dorsal fin and pectoral fins for swimming. They often use their tail to anchor themselves to corals, sea weeds, or sea grasses. They use their long snouts to suck in plankton and small crustaceans.
Pipefish are also included with seahorses under the Syngnathidae family. While seahorses swim vertically, pipefish swim horizontally. Pipefish too have a long snout. They are snake-like in appearance. Many species have prehensile tails.
Besides the aforementioned animals, even rats use their tail for maintaining balance. They can also wrap their tail around an object or hang. However, their tails are partially prehensile, which is why they might hang for a brief period. Also, bettongs and potoroos possess partially prehensile tails. These are marsupials that are native to Australia. These look like small wallabies and belong to the Potoroidae family.
There are several fascinating ways in which animals have evolved and adapted themselves to their environment. Prehensility is certainly an interesting animal adaptation, that has helped the aforementioned animals survive better in their habitat. While the prehensile tail is just one of the physiological or anatomical adaptations that is of great significance for arboreal animals, there are several other adaptations too that are sure to arouse the curiosity of any animal lover.