You might have guessed that the coati (pronounced kə-WA-tē) (also called a coatimundi) and the raccoon were related, partly because they both have long, impressive, striped tails! Like raccoons, coatis are also adaptable and resourceful, and they’re excellent climbers and swimmers. Coatis have strong forelimbs, curved claws, and reversible ankles, enabling them to make their way down a tree headfirst—a cool feat and a handy convenience when you’re in a hurry! Here you’ll discover similarities and differences among the four coati species and find out how the coati animal got its name. Each coati species claims various parts of the Americas as its home, with certain preferences in elevation and habitat type.
- The mountain coati—which has thick, coarse olive-brown or rust fur and a yellowish-gray tail with black rings—is found in high-elevation forests in the Andes of western Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador, and the far west of Peru. This species is the smallest and is sometimes called the dwarf coati.
- The South American coati—which has dark brown, grey, or rust fur; a brown muzzle with pale spots above, below, and behind its eyes; and a black or brown tail with yellow rings—lives in tropical regions of South America in edge habitat or secondary growth forests up to 2,500 meters in elevation.
- The white-nosed coati—the only coati with part of its range in the U.S.— has greyish-brown fur with silver flecks on the sides of its arms; a white band near the end of its nose; a white spot above and below the eyes and on the cheek; black feet with naked soles; and a long tail with black rings. This species is found in southeastern Arizona through Mexico and Central America and into western Colombia and Ecuador.
- The Cozumel Island coati—very similar in appearance to the white-nosed coati, this species is only found on the island of Cozumel.
Mountain coatis have not been as closely and carefully observed as the others, because there are fewer of them and they’re not as accessible to watch, but there are many things generally thought to be true of all three coati species. Unlike raccoons, who sleep all day and forage at night, coatis are diurnal and prefer to spend most of their daylight hours foraging. Although males are sometimes also active at night, most females and young head for the treetops at night to sleep in relative safety from predators. They also mate, give birth, and raise their young in the treetops.
To forage, coatis use their long and flexible nose, sniffing and feeling for small prey under leaves, in the soil, and between rocks. What are they trying to find? Mostly insects—grubs, termites, larval beetles, centipedes, and ants—but also spiders, scorpions, land crabs, frogs, eggs, lizards, small snakes, and mice. But, wait, there’s more! They’re also fond of fruits, and occasionally consume carrion. This great diversity in their diet earns them the proud designation of “omnivore,” which basically means they’ll eat just about anything they can catch, chew, and/or swallow!
Male coatis are solitary (except during a brief breeding season), but females are rather social. The females and young hang out in bands of up to 30 animals, and they make a range of clicks, grunts, whistles, and barks to communicate with one another while foraging. Females, for example, let out warning barks if they notice a predator nearby, and the older ones will chase off the predator, giving the younger ones a chance to climb to the treetops for safety. Within the clan there is a dominance hierarchy, mutual grooming, and cooperative relationships that enable moms to have time to forage by sharing responsibility for tending the young. When a band becomes too large for the area, some animals will split off to create a new band in neighboring territory. Having previously known and been helpful to one another, members of neighboring bands live in relative harmony. Males, however, scent-mark their turf and battle one another, when necessary, to establish their claims.
What’s in a name?
Part of how coatis got their name is because of the way that they sleep. The word “coati” is Tupian Indian for “belt,” while the word “tim” means “nose.” As it happens, coatis like to tuck their nose under their belly when they sleep—whether it’s because they have cold noses or because they want to protect their all-important food finder, they’re not telling! The longer version of the name—“coatimundi” (sometimes written coati mundi) is also derived from the Guarani language and means “lone coati.” This term is most often used to refer to a lone male.
The family life of coatis
The breeding season varies with timing of the greatest availability of fruit—which may be from January through March or from October through February, depending upon location. After mating, the females drive the male who mated with them away, because males have an unfortunate tendency to kill juveniles. (Naturally, the moms are not having any of that.) The females disperse sometime during gestation (which lasts about 11 weeks) and remain apart from the band for the early stages of raising their young. They build a treetop nest with twigs and leaves in which to bear their
young—usually 4, but sometimes up to 7. The young are born helpless but develop quickly. Within 10 days their eyes open. At 19 days, they can stand. By 24 days, they can walk and focus their eyes, and two days later they can climb! By 4 months, they are eating solid food. The mom and her young will rejoin the mother’s band, and the father will stop by to acknowledge his young. Coatis reach adult size by about 15 months. Females are ready to mate at 2 years, and males at 3 years.
Key members of their ecosystems
Like all creatures, coatis are invaluable members of their ecosystems. Their constant foraging for insects and other small prey keeps populations of these species in check. Their presence is also crucial to members higher on the food chain. Coati predators include large cats—such as jaguars, mountain lions, ocelots, and jaguarundis—as well as boas and large birds of prey. Even the coati’s long, flexible nose is key to the ecosystem, as their foraging with it provides healthy aeration of the soil, benefitting plants and small creatures of the soil, as well as everything on up the food chain that depends upon them. They are also known to be excellent distributers of seeds, which pass through their digestive systems and are deposited throughout their territory.
Human and coati conflicts
Like their raccoon cousins, coatis sometimes get into trouble for foraging in gardens or farm fields, or for taking small farm animals. They also occasionally get into trouble when they enter communities to eat unsecured food and trash. On the other hand, coatis also suffer from human activities, as they are hunted in most areas they live, except for in New Mexico, where they are protected as an endangered species. In addition, habitat loss and degradation from human activities are taking a toll on coati numbers.