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Dogs use their tails more for communication than movement

In the animal kingdom, tails come in many shapes, sizes, and strengths. For instance, the long, thick tail of a kangaroo acts as a third leg, while the rabbit’s fluffy tail is used to communicate with conspecifics. In the case of carnivores, tails often help them be more agile while hunting. Scientists have long debated whether dogs’ tails could play a similar function.

Now, by combining experimental data, mathematical modeling, and computer simulations, an international team of researchers led by the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems has found that the canines’ tails play very little role in stabilization and more likely act as a communication device.

While in many mammalian carnivores, tails are very useful for balancing, counterbalancing, and sometimes gripping during climbing activities, they can play a significant role on the ground too. For instance, cheetahs use their tails for jumping stabilization and turning. But is this the case for dogs too?

“It is unknown if larger carnivorans, such as canids, can still use their tails to this effect or whether other appendages, such as head movement, must be used,” the study authors wrote. “Canidae have been shown to exhibit various tail elevations and depressions in different movement paces with many dogs walking with an upright tail whereas galloping with a tail aligned with the spinal column. However, these movements are highly complex and require long periods of dedicated practice to be able to perform them, making it an unlikely strategy for other animals. This study sought to design a complex biomechanics model to test the inertial capabilities of canidae tails.”

To clarify the role dogs’ tails play in stabilization, the scientists used data from detailed motion tracking studies of the ways dog move and jump. Then, they performed computer simulated leaps, altering the position of the tails to see whether positioning had a significant effect on the jump. The analysis shown that dogs were able to jump adroitly regardless of what their tails were doing.

“The utilizing of the tail during jumping mechanisms achieves very low amounts of center of mass movement across all species with the largest being under a single degree. We believe that this implies that dogs utilize their tails for other means, such as communication and pest control, but not for agility in maneuvers,” the scientists explained.

“Given the incredibly low angular movement the tail is imposing on the center of mass in a range of canid species, we believe at this point that the dog tail is primarily adapted for communication,” they concluded.

The study is published on the preprint server bioRxiv.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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