Nice Caboose: Animals With the Longest Tails

Lizards, birds, and giraffes are among nature's record holders.

The longest tale is the one someone tells you when you're en route to the restroom.

The longest tail is another story. 

Today Weird Animal Question of the Week looks at some wondrous waggers, thanks to Kasi Lucas, who asked: “What animal has the longest tail by body mass?”

Lengthy Lizards

Giraffes have the longest tails of any land mammal—up to 8 feet (2.4 meters)—but it's easier to think of the length of an animal's body in relation to its tail length, says Robert Espinoza, a biologist at California State University, Northridge. 

By this calculation, the Asian grass lizard likely has the world's longest tail, says Don Moore, director of the Oregon Zoo in Portland. This tiny reptile has a 10-inch (25-centimeter) tail, more than three times the length of its body. 

Long tails evolve in vertebrate species that use their tail for balance, which includes tree dwellers like the grass lizard and water skimmers like the Jesus Christ lizard. Some species that swim need their tails for propulsion.

Tails offer an added bonus: Some reptiles have detachable ones, so if a predator attacks, they can sacrifice their tails and escape with their lives. (Related: "Spider-Man Ready: Five Animals That Regrow Body Parts.")

As far as frogs go, most are tailless, Espinoza says, but tadpole tails are quite impressive. The tadpole of a red-spotted glass frog (which we think we’ve seen singing in a cartoon) appears to have a tail twice as long as its body. 

Mammal Tails

A type of hopping rodent called the jerboa, native to North Africa and Asia, also has a superlong tail. 

The long-eared jerboa’s body is up to 3.5 inches (8.9 centimeters) long, while its tail is twice that long, at up to 6.4 inches (16 centimeters). Their long tails help them balance as they jump several feet horizontally and vertically. (Related: "5 Jerboa Facts: Explaining the Cute, Jumping Rodent.")

Spider monkeys are close, Moore says, with a tail 1.9 times their body length. 

Points for poofiness go to Borneo’s tufted ground squirrel. Nicknamed the "vampire squirrel," the fierce little mammal has a tail that's 130 percent of its body volume. This fluffy appendage may confuse predators long enough for it to get away.

Note to self: ask what conditioner they use.

Making a Splash

For the underwater division, Jackie Cooper, an aquarist at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, nominates the whiptail ray. This fish has a barbed tail that reaches up to three times its body length.  

For sheer grandeur, we'd be remiss not to mention the thresher shark, whose surreally angular tail is as long as its body and a heck of a weapon.

Bountiful Birds

Birds tails are different, since they're actually "lengthy feathers, not bony tails like in some lizards or mammals,” Moore says via email.

Even so, they’re too glorious to ignore, especially the ribbon-tailed astrapia of New Guinea. This bird has a three-foot (0.9-meter) tail that's nearly quadruple its body length.

Slighty longer, with a tail four times its body length, is the male long-tailed widow bird. Why does this African grassland species carry such a massive tail? 

“Females, who have very normal tails, like them,” says John Klicka, of Seattle’s Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture

Understood. Who hasn’t dressed up and shaken a tail feather for love?

Tell us: What's your favorite animal tail?

Weird Animal Question of the Week answers your questions every Saturday. If you have a question about the weird and wild animal world, tweet me, leave me a note or photo in the comments below, or find me on Facebook.

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