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  • Scientist maps movements of ringtail cats

    Shy member of raccoon family not common in Ore.
  • The latest wild animal to captivate biologist Rosemary Stussy's imagination looks like something Dr. Seuss put together.
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  • The latest wild animal to captivate biologist Rosemary Stussy's imagination looks like something Dr. Seuss put together.
    It has the big eyes and body of a tan cat with what appears to be a large raccoon tail stapled to its rear.
    Hence the name ringtail cat. But not much else is known about the reclusive animals that call Southern Oregon the northernmost fringe of their habitat.
    "We don't know anything about them," says Stussy, from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Central Point office. "We have vague rumors and a couple dots on a map, but they're not something we ever consciously went out to look for.
    "We need to know what they do in Oregon," she says.
    Now two ringtails are sporting some radio-transmitting bling that will help Stussy in the initial stages of what she hopes will lead to a specific method for how to survey ringtails in Oregon.
    After weeks of using trail cameras and bait to locate and lure ringtails, Stussy two weeks ago captured and collared two ringtails near Lost Creek Lake, allowing her to use a radio receiver to track their daily whereabouts and even locate one of their dens.
    "I know they're a mother and daughter because they're hanging out in the same den," Stussy says. "I got one on video that doesn't look like my girls. He's beefier than them.
    "There's always a boy around," she says.
    Over the next year, she plans on monitoring their movements, the types of habitats they prefer and other information that, over time, she can use to develop a methodology for a survey that could generate a population estimate here.
    That methodology could then be used to apply similar surveys elsewhere in Oregon, Stussy notes.
    "I don't think people realize how special ringtails are," she says.
    Known scientifically as Bassariscus astutus, ringtails are not actually cats but members of the raccoon family. Adults measure 12 to 17 inches long to the base of their tales, with the tails doubling their size.
    They are agile climbers and prefer living in steep, rough habitats. Their ankle joints are flexible and able to rotate more than 180 degrees, and their tails not only provide stability when climbing but also allow them to reverse direction by performing cartwheels.
    As a state-listed "sensitive" species, ringtails cannot be trapped or hunted in Oregon.
    They are nocturnal and omnivores, eating anything from lizards and squirrels to nuts, berries and insects.
    At least two have a soft spot for raisins and jam.
    That's what Stussy used as bait to first photograph and then capture her two ringtails just off the Rogue River Trail along the lake's northeast side.
    She began there last month after rumors surfaced of someone spotting ringtails.
    After getting the animals to eat in front of the camera, she used a live trap to get the smaller one first, with the mother succumbing to the bait a week later.
    "I lucked out," she says.
    Stussy sedated each one, then used a zip-tie to fasten a radio-transmitter loosely around their necks before release.
    "The first one was so docile, you could almost handle it," Stussy says. "The older one was screaming and spitting. Beautiful animals, though."
    She mans her receiver daily, dialing up the frequency on each animal's transmitter to map its whereabouts.
    Over the ensuing year, Stussy expects to see their range to be about a mile, in which they will have multiple den sites.
    The data will help her set up protocols for surveying for ringtails. For instance, she hopes to determine how far apart cameras should be placed to capture ringtail images and what types of habitats to focus on.
    That data will allow Stussy to develop an estimate of local ringtails and provide others with a standardized format for repeating these surveys elsewhere in Oregon.
    For now, Stussy will continue to make regular visits to locate these ringtails living in obscurity along a piece of the Rogue River Trail.
    "It just tickles me," she says. "All these people are walking right by their dens and it doesn't faze the ringtails and the people don't know."
    Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or email at mfreeman@mailtribune.com.
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