In a nod to the nocturnal, Arizona’s state mammal is the ringtail. This squirrel-sized critter is complicated; fierce but also cute, with wide black eyes ringed in white, and a fluffy black and white boa of a tail. This significant tail offers balance as the ringtail climbs and jumps through its rocky habitat searching crevices for prey. The ringtail navigates sheer cliffs with semi-retractable claws and hind feet that handily rotate 180 degrees for headfirst descents. Acute eyesight and a keen sense of smell help the ringtail locate rodents, birds, lizards, fruits and insects. With a quick pounce and a swift bite to the neck, it’s all over for the unlucky prey. In turn, the ringtail is hunted by celebrated predators of the night, such as great horned owls, bobcats and coyotes.
Another nocturnal critter in black and white is the skunk. There are four different skunk species in Arizona, living in a variety of habitats. Skunks walk flat-footed on their plantigrade hind feet – envision a shuffle with a waddle. Their pungent spray carries 12 feet from the exit end of the animal. A reasonable skunk will warn offenders by stomping before spraying. The spotted skunk is unique for its ability to climb trees, and also because it offers a special pre-spray warning. If you come upon a spotted skunk doing a handstand, don’t stick around for the next act! Skunks prefer thick brushy areas where bugs, lizards and bird’s eggs can be unearthed from beneath rocks and debris. Only great horned owls hunt skunks. Since they don’t have a sense of smell, not a nestling complains about skunk for dinner. Sadly, many skunks also end up as roadkill on rural roads.
A great diversity of desert rodents scurry forth to gather food under the blanket of darkness. Most eat seeds, mesquite beans and vegetation, but southern grasshopper mice are predators, miniature warriors at the bottom of the food chain. These furry mice prey on insects, lizards and even other mice, stalking and ambushing their victims. In behavior reminiscent of wolves, pairs of grasshopper mice establish territories where they raise and teach their young, ranging far afield each night on hunting expeditions. Grasshopper mice are known for their howling, perhaps striking fear into the hearts of the hunted when they rise up on their hind legs, noses to the sky, and wail their eerie cry.
Surely the bat is the most iconic mammal of the night. Although many people find bats creepy, they are an important cog in the wheel of life on earth. With 18 different families, bats make up one-fourth of the total population of mammals. The Western pipistrelle bat vies with the desert shrew as earth’s smallest mammal, weighing just 1/10th of an ounce. Free-tailed bats may have a wingspan of 20 inches, but weigh just 2 ounces. At the mildest end of the spectrum are families of bats that eat leaves, fruits and nectar; many are vital pollinators. Bug-hunting bats keep some of earth’s most aggressive crop-eaters in check. They epitomize our popular image, using echolocation to snatch insects from inky skies. Carnivorous bats eat rodents, lizards, birds, frogs, other bats and even fish. And yes, a few species of bats subsist on blood. Often misunderstood, bats have ranged the earth for over 50 million years, and are now the most threatened land mammal in North America.