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When I was visiting LIONSROCK, I watched tiger Raspoetin maintain his balance carefully with his tail up in the air while he was slowing moving down the hill to the other side of the enclosure. For a moment or two he stood still, first glancing towards his neighbours at the time, tigers Jasper and Jade, with his tail loosely hanging as if to indicate he is relaxed and just merely acknowledging their presence before moving further. His neighbours gave him a passing glance, the black tips of their own tails just flicking a moment.
It was as if a silent exchange of sorts took place and even though I could not understand it, it was plain to see these tigers were communicating. At the time an animal caretaker explained to me a big cat’s tail may play a part in such visual communication with each other and there is a careful way of observing this body language that can endear these big cats even more to an observer.
According to the Head of Animal and Facility Management at the FELIDA Big Cat Sanctuary, Juno van Zon, one can easily see from the movement of the tail what kind of mood big cats like lions are experiencing. They flick their tail when they are naughty, in a playful mood or looking to sneak up on someone. If the tail swings up and down quickly, then that means the animal is angry or irritated.
What is a given, is that tigers need their tails to keep their balance when navigating a hill, making sharp turns in pursuit of prey and to communicate with each other. Even though Raspoetin was just out for a gentle stroll to check out the perimeter of his enclosure, Jade and Jasper were reading his body language from their enclosure.
And there is much to be said as a tiger's tail is about one metre in length, accounting for a substantial part of the body's length. It is a very distinctive tail as there are rings on the tail to compliment the tiger’s stripes, and the tip of the tail is black.
Big cats like tigers make use of their tails for many functions such as this display of mood, in mating rituals, to strengthen social bonds, and to enhance their movement.
If you know a little about tail movements of these big cats combined with their body posture, you will be able to tell what these movements signal about their state of mind. These observations can be an interesting way to teach yourself more about the animals and their contact with each other.
At the lion enclosures at LIONSROCK, where prides like the Romanian Five are grouped together, individual lions would often be seen with tails wrapped around each other during playful bonding, before they would move off. It is also with leopards very often the case that while a cub would move around with its mother, the tail would be wrapped around or touching her face.
Leopard mothers have their own way of expressing their mood to the young ones and will often whip their tail away from a cub if it playfully tries to bite her. Between mother and offspring, there would also often be a learning moment when the white tip of the mother’s tail becomes a guiding tool when the cub or sub-adult is learning to hunt.
Those tips of the tails are important. Depending on the sub species, Siberian tigers, like LIONSROCK’s Mirza, Rafik and Zita, have a very thick tail. Lions have a skinnier tail but with a big tuft at the end which tigers lack. Lions are also the only big cats with a fluffy tuft at the end.
At FELIDA Big Cat Sanctuary in the Netherlands young male lion Nikola has a beautiful big tail. Juno says such tails are often seen in younger lions as some body parts can grow disproportionally in young lions. He observed that this is indeed the case with Nikola and says his tail looks like that of a full-grown male lion with a clearly visible tuft. Nikola is also apparently not shy to show this symbol of his teenage testosterone off in front of others.
Big cat tails can however also have a much more mundane function. For all big cats tails also act as fly swatters. A quick swish of the tail when they are feeding on antelope, is often used to show their annoyance at flies descending on their catch.
There is however also a species-preserving function to tails. Big cats have much use for their tails when trying to attract a potential partner. The female is known to circle her male counterpart, flicking her tail onto his body, and thus expressing the desire to mate. This playful behaviour can go on for days until both are ready for the big moment.
Tails are also functional as a rudder to big cat body movements
Leopards have very long, tubular-shaped tails, which are crucial to their balance.
When visiting male leopard Bakari at LIONSROCK during an enrichment activity, where his enrichment toy was swinging from a high rail on his platform in his enclosure, I saw how important a leopard’s tail is for balance.
The popular leopard jumped up at the box with atop the pole with his tail curling and shooting out at different angles as he tried within a few seconds to take down the box. His effort was rewarded when he could successfully walk away with this new treasure of leaves, antelope poop and twigs.
It is not only leopards who are the true balancing artists. Members of the most recent arrivals, the Golden Pride, a group of ten lions, regularly climb trees exhibiting why a tail is important for balance. They show clearly it helps with the placing of their body weight, as well as the pace that they are climbing at and gives direction to their movement.
In wild lions the balancing act also comes into play when these predators must pull carcasses up trees to hide them from others. During this climb to their so-called tree pantries, the animals might be concentrating on navigating the tree and their quandary, but it is their tails that will automatically help to steer the way by maintaining balance. It is indeed also a double act as the tails have by then also have done their job by helping to increase
balance during the chasing of the prey.
Whatever the use, there is a tale to be told about the tail of a big cat and by flicking, wagging and swishing they are prepared to tell that tale themselves.