By Jodi Cisman / Photo by Bruce D. Taubert

if you ask most Arizonans, they can usually identify the state flower (saguaro blossom), the state flag and maybe even the state motto ("God Enriches"), but when it comes to the state mammal, they're usually stumped. Bear? Bobcat? Beaver? Nope. The wily ringtail is Arizona's warm-blooded vertebrate of choice. It's a distinction it's held since 1986, and it's certainly worthy.

Ringtails played an important role in the taming of Arizona and the American West. Sort of. When pioneers began making their way out West during the Gold Rush, they noticed a small, agile creature with a vibrant tail that nested in rocky dwellings and dead tree trunks.

Ringtails, which are easily domesticated, were often kept as pets by miners because they were affectionate and exceptionally good at ridding cabins and mines of disease-spreading rodents and insects.

Although ringtails are known by many names — ringtail cats, miner's cats, civet cats and coon cats — they're more closely related to raccoons than felines. They acquire their catty nicknames because of their feline behaviors: They only come out at night to hunt and mate, and they tend to be timid and reclusive creatures.

Their most noticeable features are their namesake tails, which are large and fluffy, and stretch 14 inches with 14 to 16 contrasting black-and-white rings from base to tip. They're handsome-looking tails, but more importantly, they aid in agility by helping the ringtails maintain their balance — ringtails can rotate 180 degrees and have been seen doing cartwheels and ricocheting between stone walls.

When they're not doing acrobatics, ringtails have a fluctuating diet, depending on the season. In the summer, they feed on mostly spiders, crickets, scorpions and grasshoppers, while in the fall their diet shifts primarily to plants. As the months roll on, the winter chill provides a hefty bounty of rodents, rabbits, squirrels and small birds, which sustain them until spring, when the ringtails enjoy the occasional hackberry, persimmon or mistletoe snack.

On the other side of the food-chain equation, bobcats, foxes and large owls often make meals out of ringtails. Which goes to show, even the state mammal is subject to the cycle of life.