Coatis are raccoon-like mammals in the family Procyonidae, which have a long ringed tail, typically held perpendicular to the body, and a flexible, upturned, elongated snout. Coatis are also distinctive socially. The females live together in highly organized groups called bands, composed of 5-12 allied individuals, while adult males are solitary. The difference in the social patterning of the sexes initially confused biologists who described the males as a separate species. The use of the name "coatimundi" for this species, meaning "lone coati" in Guarani, reflects this error.
There are four species of coatis in two genera, all fairly similar in appearance. Coatis are versatile animals found in a variety of vegetation ranging from thorn scrub, moist tropical forest, and grassland areas stretching from southwestern through Central and South America to northern Argentina. The ringtailed coati ( Nasua nasua) is a common species. Its coat is tawny red in color with a black face. Patches of white accentuate the coat above and below each eye and one on each cheek. The throat and belly are also white, while the feet and the rings on the tail are black, and the ears are short and heavily furred. The head-to-tail length ranges from 32 to 51 in (80 to 130 cm) with a little more than half the length being tail. Other species of coati vary slightly in size, coat color, and markings.
Coatis have strong forelimbs that are shorter than the hind legs. Despite a plantigrade foot posture the animal is arboreal as well as terrestrial. The long, strong claws are nonretractile, and the long tail is used for balance. Coatis can reverse the direction of their ankles, facilitating a head-first descent from the trees. The upper mandible is longer than the lower contributing to the flexible use of the snout. The coati has 38-40 teeth with long, slender and sharp canines.
Contrary to other members of the family Procyonidae, coatis are primarily diurnal searching for their omnivorous diet by probing their sensitive snout in the leaf litter and rotting logs on the forest floor. Predominately insectivorous, eating such things as beetles, grubs, ants, and termites, coatis also eat a considerable amount of fruit when it is in season, foraging both on the ground and high in trees. Additionally, they are opportunistic predators on vertebrates, occasionally catching frogs, lizards, and mice. Coatis have been known to unearth and eat turtle and lizard eggs. Foraging alone, male coatis typically catch more lizards and rodents than the females and young, who forage in small groups.
Most of the day is spent foraging for food. During rest periods, coatis will groom each other. They curl up and sleep in trees at night. Coatis are highly vocal and use a variety of communication calls. They make a wide diversity of grunts, whines and shrieks, including a sharp whistle. When enraged, coatis will produce a chittering sound.
In the larger ringtailed and white-nosed coatis, females mature in their second year; males mature in their third year. During most of the year, females chase males away from the band because they often will kill juveniles. However, around February and March females become more tolerant and allow a dominant male to interact with the band. The male wins favor with the band females by submissively grooming them. Actual mating occurs in trees. Soon after the male has bred with all the females, he is expelled from the group by the once again aggressive females.
About four weeks before birth, females leave their bands to build stick platform nests in trees. After a 77 day gestation period, females bear a litter of three to five poorly developed young, weighing only 3.5-6.4 oz (100-180 g). For the next five to six weeks, females care for the young in the nest. Once the females and youngsters return to the band, young coatis will join their mothers in search of food, but they also play much of the time, wrestling and chasing each other among the trees.
Home ranges of bands of coatis cover about 0.6 mi (1 km), though there is considerable overlapping of range territory of neighboring bands. Despite friendly relations among bands, coatis maintain stable and distinct band membership.
Coatis have little interaction with humans in the wild, however, they are hunted for their fur and meat. Coatis have been kept in captivity, both as pets and as exhibit animals. They typically live about seven years, but have been known to survive fourteen years in captivity.
Burton, Maurice, ed. The New Larousse Encyclopedia of Animal Life. New York: Bonanza Books, 1984.
MacDonald, David, and Sasha Norris, eds. Encyclopedia of Mammals. New York: Facts on File, 2001.
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Redford, Kent H., and John F. Eisenberg. Mammals of the Neotropics: The Southern Cone, Volume 2. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.
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Betsy A. Leonard
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