A prehensile tail is the tail of an animal that has adapted to be able to grasp and/or hold objects. Fully prehensile tails can be used to hold and manipulate objects, and in particular to aid arboreal creatures in finding and eating food in the trees. If the tail cannot be used for this it is considered only partially prehensile - such tails are often used to anchor an animal's body to or dangle from a branch, or as an aid to climbing. The term prehensile means "able to grasp" (from the Latin prehendere, the root of "comprehend" and "apprehend").
Evolution of the prehensile tail
One point of interest is the distribution of animals with prehensile tails. The prehensile tail is predominantly a New World adaptation, especially among mammals. Many more animals in South America have prehensile tails than in Africa and Southeast Asia. It has been argued that animals with prehensile tails predominate in South America as the forest is very dense compared to that of Africa or Southeast Asia. In contrast, in less dense forest such as in Southeast Asia it is observed that gliding animals such as colugos or flying snakes tend to be more common instead, whereas there are few gliding vertebrates in South America. Also South American rainforests tend to have more lianas as there are fewer large animals to eat them compared to Africa and Asia; the presence of lianas perhaps aiding climbers but obstructing gliders. Curiously, Australia-New Guinea contains many mammals with prehensile tails and also many mammals which can glide; in fact, all Australian mammalian gliders have tails that are prehensile to an extent.
Anatomy and physiology of the prehensile tail
Tails are mostly a feature of vertebrates, however some invertebrates such as scorpions also have appendages that can be considered tails. However, only vertebrates are known to have developed prehensile tails. Many mammals with prehensile tails will have a bare patch to aid gripping. This bare patch is known as a "friction pad."
Animals with fully prehensile tails
- New World Monkeys. Many New World monkeys in the family Atelidae, which includes howler monkeys and spider monkeys, have grasping tails often with a bare tactile pad. This is in contrast with their distant Old World monkey cousins who do not have prehensile tails.
- Opossum. A marsupial group from the Americas. There is anecdotal evidence that opossums may use their prehensile tails to carry nesting material.
- Binturong. The only Old World animals with fully prehensile tails are the binturongs of Borneo, though even they use only the tip of the tail.
- Kinkajou. The kinkajou of South and Central America is the only other animal of the order carnivora, besides the binturong, to sport the adaptation.
- Harvest Mouse. The Harvest Mouse (Micromys minutus) also has a prehensile tail. Commonly found amongst areas of tall grasses such as cereal crops (particularly wheat and oats), roadside verges, hedgerows, reedbeds, dykes and salt-marshes.
- Bicolored-spined Porcupine This porcupine, unlike others, has a fully prehensile tail.
Animals with partially prehensile tails
- New World Monkeys. The capuchin monkey. It is interesting to note that the capuchin is more than intelligent enough to make full use of its prehensile tail, but since the tail lacks an area of bare skin for a good grip it is only used in climbing and dangling. Other reasons for partial prehensility might include the lack of strength or flexibility in the tail, or simply having no need to manipulate objects with it.
- Tree porcupines. The 15 species of tree porcupine divided between 3 genera (Coedou, Sphiggurus, and Echinoprocta). They are found in South America, with one species extending to Mexico. All have prehensile tails.
- Anteaters. Anteaters are found in Central and South America. Three of the four species of anteater, the Silky Anteater and the two species of Tamandua, have prehensile tails
- Rats have been known to be able to wrap the tail around an object after running around it, therefore giving the creature a small bit of balance. They have also been seen to be able to briefly hang off an object, though not for long.
- Tree Pangolin. One of the few Old World mammals with a prehensile tail.
- Possums. This large, diverse group of 63 species forms the marsupial suborder Phalangeriformes, found in Australia, New Guinea, and some nearby islands. All members of the suborder have prehensile tails, however the tails of some members such as the Acrobatidae have only limited prehensile capacity. Notably, all three marsupial glider groups belong to this suborder.
- Potoroidae. A marsupial group found in Australia that includes the bettongs and the poteroos. They have weakly prehensile tails.
- Monito del Monte. A small South American marsupial with a prehensile tail.