Meet the coati

Look at that face! Photo by Pat Gaines on Flickr.

I have had the absolute pleasure of seeing today’s animal in the wild. My senior year of college, I went on a trip to Costa Rica over winter break for a class. One day, while we were getting ready to hike in the cloud forest, we saw a coati in the parking lot. He was super cute and reminded me a lot of a raccoon.

My Costa Rican coati friend.

There’s a good reason for the raccoon similarity: coatis are members of the Procyonidae family, the same family that includes raccoons and kinkajous. There are four species of coatis across two genera: the eastern mountain coati and the western mountain coati (genus Nasuella), and the white-nosed coati and South American coati (genus Nasua). We don’t know much about the behavior of the mountain coatis, so this post will focus instead on the Nasua ones.

  • Coati vs. coatimundi
    • The name “coati” comes from the Tupian language, a language indigenous to South America. It is a combination of the word for “belt” (cua) and the word for “nose” (tim). The term kua’ti references how coatis sleep with their nose tucked into their belly. Now, you may have also heard coatis referred to as “coatimundi.” This term means “lone coati” and was originally used to describe the adult males who live alone. Scientists once thought that coatimundi were separate species from coati, but now we know that they are all the same!
  • Fun bodies
    • Coatis are cute! And in addition to their cuteness, they have a body that is well-adapted to their lifestyle. Their ankles are double-jointed and can rotate 180 degrees; this lets coatis climb down trees headfirst quickly, a vital skill for outrunning predators. They also have very dexterous paws that are useful for defending themselves and getting into trashcans (just like their raccoon cousins!). One more flexible body part: their nose! Coati noses can be rotated up to 60 degrees in any direction. This is great for pushing objects, rubbing their bodies, and unearthing invertebrates to eat.
So cute! And such a long tail. Photo by Joseph C Boone on Wikipedia.
  • What’s in a tail
    • Coatis have very long tails that can be as long as their body (13 to 27 inches). These tails are non-prehensile; unlike monkey tails, for instance, coati tails cannot grab onto objects. But they are still very important!! Coati tails act as a balancing pole while they are in the trees. When coatis are on the ground, their tail is used for signaling. It is held erect so that members of a band can keep track of each other in thick vegetation.
  • Social mammals
    • Speaking of bands: coatis are very social animals. Females and their young will live in groups of four to 25 individuals. These groups, called bands, travel together and look out for one another. Older females will take turns “babysitting” the youngsters and watching out for predators. When something startles the band, they will let out a barking sound and everyone will jump into the trees.
A baby coati who will be cared for by all the older females in their band. Photo by zoofanatic on Flickr.
  • But while female coatis are very social, the males are solitary. They live by themselves until the start of the rainy season (which is also the start of the reproductive season). Once a male joins the band, he will groom the females to get in their good graces and hopefully mate with them. Once his mating job is done, the females once again kick him out of the band. This is a way to protect their future young; male coatis are aggressive and may attempt to kill young coatis. Male offspring get to stay with the band until they are around 2 years old. Then they’re old enough for that bachelor life.
  • Big brains
    • The sociality of coatis is reflected in their brain. One study compared the brain size of males and females from three procynonid species: raccoons, kinkajous, and coatis. Out of these three species, only the coati is social. And it was only in the coati that there was a sex difference in the neural brain tissue! Female coatis have a larger frontal lobe than male coatis; it is this larger brain area volume that lets them have lifelong social ties.

Coatis have it all: they’re cute, clever, and have great family bonds (at least the females do). If you ever go to Costa Rica or another area in Central and South America, keep an eye out for them!


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