11 Interesting Coatimundi Facts

Part of the raccoon family, these elusive mammals are full of surprises.

A white nosed coati in Tulum, Mexico

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Though they look like a combination of a lemur, raccoon, monkey (and piglet?), coatimundis are officially part of the raccoon family, or Procyonidae, along with red pandas and olingos. These furry creatures mainly inhabit parts of South and Central America, but can also be found in Arizona and New Mexico. They hang out in trees, have brown-colored fur, and a long snout that helps them forage for insects and fruit. Their ringed tails give off the more raccoon-ish vibes, but there are plenty of distinctive characteristics that set coatimundis, also called coatis, apart from their black and white cousins.

1. There Are Four Types of Coatimundis

Though it depends on who you ask, the IUCN Red List considers there to be four species of coatimundis: the white-nosed coati (nasua narica, sometimes referred to as pizote), found from Arizona and New Mexico into northwest Colombia; the South American coati (nasua nasua, also known as ring tailed coati), found in north Argentina to Uruguay; the western mountain coati (nasuella olivacea) found in the Colombian and Ecuadorian Andes; and the eastern mountain coati (nasuella meridensis), found in the Venezuelan Andes.

The main difference is that mountain coatis are significantly smaller, averaging about 19 inches in size compared to the nasua’s 41 inches, and have shorter tails. Some include the Cozumel Island coati and the Wedels coati as separate species, though very little is known about them.

2. Coatis Are Named for Their Unique Noses

Sleeping South American coati
Marcel ter Bekke / Getty Images

The name coatimundi is believed to come from the Tupian languages indigenous to South America. Their word, kua’ti, is a combination of “cua” meaning “belt” and “tim” meaning “nose,” describing the way the coati sleeps with its nose tucked into its belly. They use these special noses to sniff out grubs like beetles and termites, with the occasional frog, lizard, or mouse. Unlike raccoons, who are primarily nocturnal, coatis stay awake during the day. The name “coatimundi” was originally used to describe adult males who live alone (translating into “lone coati”), but it is now used universally. Curiously, the Spanish name used in Mexico, "tejón", translates to "badger" in English.

3. They Give Birth in Trees

South American coati mother and its baby
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Along with being good swimmers, coatis are excellent climbers. While most of the day is spent foraging for food on the ground, they do their sleeping, mating, and birthing in trees. After mating, the female begins the task of building a sturdy tree nest for the remainder of her gestation period and to give birth. She goes there alone, leaving the rest of the band behind. The pregnancy lasts three months and the 2-7 babies stay in the tree nest until they can climb on their own. Around 6-10 weeks of age, they rejoin the band with their mother, and other mothers help to raise all the babies communally.

4. Coatis Babysit One Another’s Offspring

Baby coatis are able to stand on their own after 19 days and can climb at 26 days, being cared for in the isolated nests until they are about 6 weeks old and can rejoin their mother’s social group. Since it can take up to eleven days for their eyes to open, baby coatis are protected by both the mother and the other female members of the band until they are weaned. Made up of both genetic and non-genetic relatives, these groups of coati females essentially take turns “babysitting” and watching for predators while individuals forage, as demonstrated by studies on reciprocity in coati social networks.

5. Females and Babies Live in Large Groups

A band of coatimundi at Iguaçu Fall National Park, Brazil.
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Groups of coatis, also called “bands,” consist exclusively of females and their young. Numbers range from four to 20 individuals at a time, but sometimes reach up to 30. These bands tend to be noisy, with constant grunts, chirps, and snorts. After male babies reach two years of age, they go off on their own, while the females remain in the band with their mothers, according to research on coati social networks. Adult males are solitary creatures, preferring to live and forage alone, but during breeding season join the organized bands of females to mate, after which they leave again to isolate themselves.

6. They Have an Important Role in Their Ecosystem

All that foraging accomplishes so much more than a full coatimundi belly. Studies on coatis' role in the ecosystem have shown that they are vital in controlling populations of insects and help disperse seeds while consuming fruit, which is important for the survival of certain plant species. While coatis are foraging, they are also using their long noses to move dirt around, essentially aerating it to allow oxygen to circulate and allowing better absorption of water and nutrients to the soil.

7. Coatis Are High Altitude Specialists

No matter the species, coatimundis have the innate ability to adapt to a wide variety of habitats, including those of very high altitudes. They are found in tropical regions and open forests just as much as the slopes of the Andes Mountains, having been observed at elevations of 2,500 meters (over 8,200 feet).

8. Their Tails Help Them Balance

A coatimundi walking across a fallen log in La Amistad National Park
jared lloyd / Getty Images

Unlike some of their fellow tree-dwelling mammals, they can’t use their tails for gripping, but rather the long banded tails of coatis act as a balancing pole while they are climbing. As they forage on the ground, their muscular tails are usually standing straight up. This behavior, according to San Diego Zoo researchers, may help them keep track of one another in the vegetation, like a flag indicating their location.

9. Their Ankles Are Double-Jointed

A ring tailed coati climbing down a tree
IJdema / Getty Images

Coatis have developed double-jointed ankles in order to help them climb trees, along with strong claws to excavate prey from logs and burrows. Their double-jointed ankles can rotate a full 180 degrees, allowing them to climb down trees headfirst with relative ease and at high speeds, helping them evade predators more easily. These joints are also extremely flexible. Their front paws are highly dexterous and can help them to escape from almost any human-made enclosure.

10. Coatis Communicate Through Chirps

While males primarily use scent marking to establish territory among other males during the mating season, females are much more social. They use a whimpering sound to communicate to their young while they are weaning and make a louder barking noise to warn their band-mates of nearby danger. When the entire band gets surprised, they will jump into trees and make clicking and woof-like sounds.

11. Certain Species Are Endangered

IUCN lists the white-nosed coati and the South American coati as “least critical,” but when the two mountain species were officially separated into western and eastern species in 2009, they became “near threatened” and “endangered,” respectively. Unfortunately, since so little is known about these animals, their conservation designations are based primarily on suspected rates of population decline.

According to IUCN, the lack of scientifically sound population studies and habitat studies of mountain coatis in the wild are most likely leading to the severe underestimation of the ecological issues and number decline in Central and South America. We need clearer information on the coati adaptability to the potential threats they face so that conservation interventions can be planned and executed as needed.

Save the Mountain Coati

  • Raise awareness. The lack of coatimundi conservation stems from a lack of knowledge about these animals, so sharing the importance of coatimundis is essential for its overall protection.
  • Say no to exotic pets. Tropical and small mammals, like the coatis, are often traded internationally or are victims of the illegal pet trade. Remember to never take an exotic animal home from the wild, and never release animals that have been kept as pets back into the wild.
  • Support reforestation. The IUCN reports that the mountain coati is potentially threatened by habitat conversion and deforestation, especially for cattle and plant crops. In parts of the Andes, the cloud forest is being converted, causing coatis to become isolated and threatened by complications from highly populated areas such as road kill and hunting.
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