We pride ourselves on being at the top of the evolutionary scale of life (even if much of our behaviour belies this).
One sign of this is that we — along with our closest relatives, the apes — do not have tails. To my mind, it’s a huge pity — most of our close cousins, the monkeys, have tails and, boy, do they have fun
“New world” primates that are found in central and South America even use their tails as a sort of fifth limb, invaluable for climbing trees and hanging upside down from them. Even our so-called “old world” monkeys, like langurs and macaques, use their tails in any number of acrobatic ways while up in the canopy. The langurs’ enormously long tails help them to balance when leaping from branch to branch and baby monkeys have a ball pulling each others (and the occasional glowering adult’s) tails while playing. And when everyone needs to calm down, they sit down quietly and groom each other’s tails, ridding them of parasites. Dada macaques display their authority by swaggering along with their tails held right up, as if leading a flag march.
Other animals also put their tails to good use. For dogs (and other canids), tails are tools of communication and you can guess exactly what your dog feels by the way it wags its tail. If the tail (and bum) is just a blur, the fellow is ecstatic to see you. If, sweeping low from side to side, it’s a little uncertain and if it’s held upright and wags stiffly, well that’s like the formal handshake of a leader sizing you up; in fact, he’s spreading his BO around and claiming territory. And, alas, if the tail slinks between the legs, the animal is scared or nervous. We have, unforgivably “docked” the tails (and even ears) of several species of dogs — like boxers and Dobermans — a practice that, thankfully, is on its way out now. The reason was that those breeds were used for fighting and a long tail (and ears) enabled the enemy to get a good hold of the dog.
Cats — big and small — flick their tails around, too, but for almost the opposite reasons as their doggie rivals do. A cat’s tail flicking from side to side indicates excitement or a temper that’s stoking up. Often the flicking of a feline’s tail in high grass, as it crouches before ambush, blows its cover. Kittens practise their hunting tactics — stalking and pouncing — on their mom’s flicking tail, usually much to her annoyance. Cheetahs use their long tails as counterbalances as they race after zigzagging prey at insane speeds. Other animals, like the Arctic fox and snow leopard, living in the frigid reaches of the world, also use their tails — which are especially thick and furry — like stoles; wrapping themselves up in them as they snuggle down in the snow.
Most herbivores — that are hunted by carnivorous predators — also have tails and use them for different purposes. Some deer and antelope rapidly flick their (usually clean white) tails up and down as they bound away from their predators: the tails serve like a car’s hazard lights flashing, warning other members of the herd to scatter. In more peaceable conditions, the tails are used as fly-whisks to help keep biting insects at bay. At around 8ft, the giraffe is said to have the longest tail of them all, but then it’s the tallest of them all in every way! Horses just look gorgeous while galloping away with their tails streaming behind them, while wild boar are completely hilarious as they scoot, their tails held vertical like the antennae of police cars!
Some animals — like the hippopotamus — really have fun with their tails and every self-respecting toddler should want to emulate them. Bull hippos whisk their tails like propellers to scatter their droppings far and wide to mark their territory. Truly, what a wonderful way this would also be to counter a lathi-charge by cops or obnoxious arguments in TV talk shows. And, then, there are those that have turned their tails into weapons of offence. Crocodiles and alligators use their immensely muscled tails to whap their victims senseless. Even creepy crawlies have got into the act: While rattlesnakes use their tails as audible warning systems, the deadly scorpion scuttles around with its pearl-like venomous stinger poised to plunge into you.
Out on the oceans, orcas use their enormous tails to play ping-pong with seals — batting them high above the waves before devouring them. Fish swim swiftly, swishing their tails from side to side; some have developed gorgeously plumed tails to seduce the female of the species. Marine mammals, like whales and dolphins, use an up-and-down motion (like swimmers with flippers). Birds mostly use their tails as rudders while some (like pheasants) have turned them into stunning bejewelled ornaments to seduce and dazzle the fair sex. (Royalty, who have their vast purple trains trailing behind them, probably developed the idea from birds to impress the hoi polloi.)
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