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Zoo-ology: White-nosed coati are intelligent day prowlers

April 3, 2011 at 3:05 p.m.
Updated April 2, 2011 at 11:03 p.m.

A white-nosed coati roams about in his habitat at the Texas Zoo on Sunday.

By Judie Farnsworth

One of the first areas at The Texas Zoo houses the white-nosed coati. Many visitors excitedly approach, then pause, exclaiming, "What is it?"

The very appealing and often animated coati is a member of the raccoon family. There are four species, but the white-nosed coati is the one found in the New World.

In the Texas wild, it's found in parts of the southwest. Arid deserts, mountain areas, grassland, bushy and wooded areas are all suitable habitats.

It's primarily day active (diurnal) and is apt to spend nights asleep in a tree.

Its strong body is 1 to 2 feet long with fur in shades of brown. It has a black mask and white around its eyes, snout and ears. An impressive ringed tail is often 2 feet long and held high when walking. It may act as a signal keeping groups, called bands, together in tall grasses and helps with balance when climbing.

The coati's ankles can rotate beyond 180 degrees. It easily descends trees head first.

Like the raccoon, the coati has a reputation for intelligence.

Males and females look alike, but males are much larger.

The coati's long, pointed snout tilts upward. It's muscular, flexible and can be rotated up to 60 degrees in any direction. With an exceptional sense of smell, the coati sniffs the ground, pushing leaf litter with its snout. When food is found, sharp claws are used to dig. The coati is an omnivore, eating vegetation and meat. Its diet may include termites, spiders, scorpions, beetles and grubs, mice, lizards, snakes and frogs. It also eats fruit and nuts. One of its favorites is prickly pear.

Females are gregarious, traveling and foraging with their young in noisy bands of sometimes 25 individuals. They work together grooming, nursing, baby-sitting and defending. The youngest pups are often kept at the center of a group for safety.

Their communications involve many sounds. Various chirping sounds express joy during social grooming, settlement after fights, or show irritation.

Body postures convey simple messages - hiding the nose between the front paws is a sign for submission.

Male coatis are mostly solitary. They're included in the family or natal group until about 2 years old. Then life gets complicated. The growing collective aggression of the females leaves the male no choice but to "get out of Dodge."

The young male may join a small bachelor band for a time. He competes with other males to join females - briefly - during breeding season. Once the male has mated, the females force him out.

Females leave the band when they are about to give birth and return when the pups are five to six weeks old.

In the wild, coatis live for about seven to eight years. In captivity they can live 15 years.

We have two white-nosed coatis at The Texas Zoo. Bart, also known as Old Timer, is a senior citizen born here in 1997. Our other coati came to us when he was about 6 months old. He is now 2.

Fortunately, there are no pushy females, and the boys get along just fine.

Judie Farnsworth is a long time volunteer at the Texas Zoo specializing in educational programs.

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