If you’ve ever seen a brown, periscope-like tail moving around in the bush, heard rustling in the leaves accompanied by squeaky grunts, or seen a brown and white face peeking out from a bush, you’ve already made the acquaintance of the coatimundi. To be precise, you’ve met the white-nosed coati, Nasua narica, also known as the chulo or, in Spanish, the pizote. The name “coati” comes from indigenous Tuipan languages of South America and is a combination of the words for “nose” and “belt”, referring to the way they sleep with their nose tucked into their belly. You can find coatis throughout the canyons and hills of southern Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, as well as tropical forests and varied habitat all the way South to Colombia! But what exactly is a coatimundi? Just by looking at them, one may guess that it is a fox with a striped tail, a weird-looking cat, or a long-nosed raccoon. This last description is probably the closest, for the coati is one of the members of the family Procyonidae, a group within the order Carnivora that includes racoons and can be found throughout North and South America. This family tree includes some members you likely know.
Three of these family members can be found in Southeast Arizona: the raccoon, the ringtail, and the coati. However, coati’s closest relatives, the olingos, are far away, climbing through trees anywhere from Nicaragua to Peru. Even though Procyonids are in the carnivore order, every member of this group is omnivorous, and the kinkajou subsists mostly on fruit. Coatis themselves will eat almost anything they can find, from insects, lizards, and small mammals, to fruits, roots, and nuts. Although they possess sharp teeth and claws for defense, they will fall prey to big cats, foxes, and birds of prey.
Over the years, there has been some debate over how to classify coatis. You may spot a large group of them, sniffing through the leaves. Or you see a lone coati, foraging and moving around on its own. When researchers first noticed this, they misclassified the white-nosed coati into two species, Nasua solitaris, the solitary coati, and Nasua sociabilis, the social coati. However, they soon realized their mistake, as further evidence revealed that this was simply different coati social structures that change with the seasons. During the winter and fall, males are solitary, carrying out their life independently of the groups of females with their growing cubs. During the mating season in the spring, however, males join the group, and later, the pregnant females wander away from the group to give birth, causing the groups to become only loosely associated. In the late summer, however, the females reunite with the groups, bringing their new cubs together and driving out the males once again. Nowadays, there are two recognized species of coati, but they are not divided based on their social status. These two species are the white-nosed coati, and the ring-tailed or South American coati, which is only found in South America.
So how do you know if a coati is around? Luckily, they are diurnal, meaning they are active during the day, so its possible that you’ll encounter one out on the trails or roving across the roads. If you look carefully, you may also spot tracks or foraging trails that indicate their presence nearby. Coatis walk on their flat feet, much like bears, so their tracks can be distinguished from canine and feline tracks, which don’t have a heel print. Coati tracks are medium-sized and similar to racoon tracks, but they are less hand-like and have longer claw marks than raccoon feet. As coatis forage, they push through leaf litter with their keen nose, searching for small animals under the dirt which they quickly dig up with their sharp claws. This leaves behind areas of disturbed leaf litter with small, dug out impressions that indicate a hungry coati has passed by. Keep a look out for these signs, and you may just see a long-tailed, long-nosed coati nearby!
“Coatis, Raccoons, and Ringtails,” National Park Service. https://www.nps.gov/sagu/learn/nature/coatis-raccoons-and-ringtails.htm (accessed July 28th, 2021).
Matthew E. Gompper, “White-Nosed Coati (Nasua Narica),” Montclair State University. https://www.montclair.edu/prism/2018/11/27/white-nosed-coati/ (accessed July 29th 2021).
New World Encyclopedia contributors, "Coati," New World Encyclopedia, , https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/p/index.php?title=Coati&oldid=678857 (accessed July 29, 2021).
“White-nosed Coati (Nasua narica) Fact Sheet: Taxonomy and History,” San Diego Zoo Wildlife Allianc Library. https://ielc.libguides.com/sdzg/factsheets/white-nosed-coati/taxonomy (accessed July 29th, 2021).
Last updated: August 15, 2021