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The Improbable Coati

November 20, 2009

Raccoons are one of the most widespread species in North America, familiar to any wildlife enthusiast. Less familiar is another member of the Procyonidae, the White-nosed Coati (Nasua narica). Though found throughout the New World tropics, coatis occur in the U.S only in southern Arizona, New Mexico, and western Texas.

Looking like some bizarre cross between a raccoon, a monkey, and an anteater, coatis are unusual among members of the raccoon family in that they are both social and diurnal. They weigh only seven to fifteen pounds, but their long legs, long tail, and dense fur make them appear much larger. Groups of five to fifty females and young can sometimes be seen foraging in the mountain canyons, their long banded tails waving in the air. Males are solitary except during the winter mating season and were once thought to be a separate species, the solitary coati or “coatimundi.” At night coatis retreat to caves and crevices or aerial nests in trees to escape predators such as mountain lions and bears.

Many years ago I read a book titled Chulo by Bil Gilbert, one of my favorite nature writers. The mountains of southeastern Arizona, where the author and his family followed a troop of coatis for a year, sounded so exotic that I never dreamed I would someday live in the same mountain range. Years later I spent a wonderful afternoon following a troop of 29 coatis, including some kitten-sized young, as they foraged along a hillside in Ramsey Canyon. They would turn over rocks and logs and root through the leaf litter in search on anything edible.

Coati populations fluctuate widely, perhaps due to the susceptibility to disease that goes along with their social lifestyle, but numbers are on the increase lately in southeastern Arizona. Whenever I hear their high pitched chirps or watch a troop cross the trail in front of me, I am reminded what a treat it is to live with such wildlife diversity.

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