'Chupacabra' might be subspecies of coati
By BY CLINT EDWARDS
April 21, 2014 at 5:05 p.m.
Updated April 20, 2014 at 11:21 p.m.
All of the local biologists are saying that what was found in Ratcliffe was a hairless raccoon; however, I believe the evidence points to a hairless white-nosed coati (Nasua narica) or a new, undiscovered subspecies. Even though we live in a developed country, there is a lot of land out there, especially in a state like Texas, for even megafauna to go relatively unnoticed; however, since we are in South Texas, which has one of the highest rates of biodiversity in the United States, finding weird and uncommon animals should not be a surprise.
In an April 7 article, Jackie Stock is quoted saying the animal "has a growl that's not like a raccoon, its eyes don't shine at night, and its feces is also not like a raccoon." Metaphorically speaking, if it sort of looks like a duck and doesn't quack like a duck, it's not a duck but perhaps a cousin of a duck.
Belonging to the same family as the raccoon and with a South American coati cousin, the white-nosed coati is an omnivore that commonly lives in wooded areas of mostly Central America and Mexico. The southern limit of its range stops in Columbia, while the northern limit extends or used to extend into southeastern Arizona, New Mexico, South Texas and the southern half of the Trans Pecos. The majority of the Texas populations most likely died out because of habit fragmentation and destruction from land use and land cover changes taking place over the last 100 to 200 years; however, the post oak savanna of northern South Texas and the current increasing conversion from post oak savanna to post oak woodland in the DeWitt County area to be more specific could have provided favorable conditions for an isolated population to survive and even thrive.
The coati may be able to tolerate the post oak savanna; however, their preference for a dense, high canopy cover woodland or forest could be the reason for increasing encounters. The suppression of fire and improper livestock rates and rotation has led to an encroachment of understory plants such as Huisache, scrub oak and Yaupon into an over story of live oak and post oak in much of the land in DeWitt County.
So now we know it is a coati. The question is, what kind? And also, is this a new population, or has it been here the entire time, surviving in refugia in the form of the southern extension of the post oak savanna? Why do we only see this hairless type of coati in the area? Do they all have mange, or do they all share a recessive hairless trait? There could be a few different scenarios.
If it is a new population of simply white-nosed coati, their hairless nature could be explained by recessive trait, mange or malnutrition. If it is not mange or a recessive trait, then it could be from malnutrition because of a forced shift toward more meat in their diet from habitat limitations such as the absence of suitable vegetation for their omnivorous diet. On the other hand, if we are dealing with a healthy population of coati with no mange or malnutrition but simply a recessive trait, then this would indicate a population that has developed in relative isolation. This population has most likely been limited from traveling north along the post oak savanna by temperature and to the south, west and east by agriculture and the Gulf of Mexico. If this is the case, a subspecies might have developed here with noticeable genetic differences only found within this geographic region.
So why do we only see hairless coatis in DeWitt County? Either the majority of the progenitors of the population were hairless, and they have always looked this way, or they started as a majority of haired, dominant trait, coatis that met different environmental pressures forcing the recessive, hairless trait to be expressed among most, if not all individuals in future generations. In some way, the new predator/cover combination of north central South Texas favored the dark, hairless phenotype.
If this is a subspecies that by choice is found to favor a more carnivorous diet than regular white-nosed coati, it probably did not originate at this particular location but somewhere in Latin America where the legend of the chupacabra is older and more prevalent. If there is not a blood-sucking subspecies of coati out there and if the animal mutilations do not match those of coati eating patterns, then there still may be something out there doing the mutilation; however, I do believe that most sightings can be explained as a misidentity case of a recessive hairless white-nosed coati.
On a humorist note, it would not be very hard to have a pet chupacabra since coatis are highly intelligent and easily domesticated.
Clint Edwards is a native of Victoria and a graduate of St. Joseph High School who holds a Master of Science degree in biogeography from Texas State University in San Marcos.