The Unnatural History of the Tejón

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By Deborah Van Hoewyk

It’s very early in the Huatulco morning, still dark, the dawn just beginning to silhouette the umbels of the guarumbo tree in back of the newly renovated Hotel Binniguenda. From my next-door balcony, I savor the serenity . . . Oops! The leaves flutter, the branches droop, and an unexpected guest rustles up early to start his daily foraging.

It’s a tejón, and he’s not particularly concerned about humans, since he climbs up the wall of my yard, crosses along the top of the wall and turns toward the balcony. He looks long at me, and makes a leisurely decision not to visit today. The last thing to disappear is his long striped tail as he silently descends to the roof next door.

Huatulco’s tejónes are white-nosed coatis, Nasua narica; they are omnivorous mammals of the Procyonidae family, which counts nearly twenty genera, including raccoons and kinkajous, among others. Coatis split off from raccoons anywhere from 5 to 10 million years ago. Today, they are generally described as comprising two genera—white nosed coatis, which range from the southwestern United States through Mexico and Central America to Colombia, and Nasua nasua, the smaller mountain coatis that inhabit a small arc through Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela.

Since the sixteenth century, when Europeans set out to catalogue and classify the world they were discovering, there’s been much confusion about just who is what in the family. Why do we care? Accurate data are essential to determining whether or not a species is endangered or threatened, and whether its habitat is disappearing.

Explorers from Spain and Portugal, England, France, and the Netherlands were extremely interested in new animals and plants, the latter for both their medicinal and commercial properties. However, up until they sailed off to a new world, scientific thinking operated strictly on the notion of fitting new information into existing knowledge. Generating new knowledge from first-hand experience ran against the grain, and the issue drove the careers of several generations of Continental philosophers.

Control of knowledge, as it is today, was an exceedingly hot political potato, vulnerable to manipulation. Explorers had to consider the goals of their patrons who had paid for the voyage—much the way modern medical researchers have to consider the drug companies that sponsor their experiments. Natural historians on explorations financed by the Spanish crown were explicitly tasked with finding commercial applications for their discoveries—which influenced what information was collected and how it was presented.

There were nearly 30 voyages in the 1500s, all financed by Spain or Portugal, that could have encountered coatis. Written descriptions, drawings, pelts, skeletons, and stuffed specimens of all sorts were carried back to Europe, where the well-to-do bought them up to put in their “Cabinets of Curiosities,” private collections of exotic stuff—some folks collected medieval armor, others liked paintings of deformed people, but they were also important precursors to natural history museums. Of course, the taxidermy on the stuffed specimens could leave a lot to the imagination (the first how-to book was written by French naturalist Pierre Belon in 1555), so some the “curiosities” were no doubt more curious in death than in life.

The naturalists and collectors started off pretty well, correctly identifying the two basic species. In 1756, the French zoologist and natural philosopher Mathurin Jacques Brisson (1723 – 1826), published (in Latin, of course), The Animal Kingdom Sorted into Nine Classes according to a Systematic Method. (Brisson has a Facebook page, but at the time of this writing, he had 0 “likes” and 0 “people talking about this.” Just in case you were wondering.)

It turns out Brisson translated a 1743 book in German by Jacob Theodor Klein (1685 – 1759), a Royal Prussian diplomat in service to the king of Poland who assembled an important cabinet of natural history curiosities (Klein has a Facebook page—0 “likes,” 0 “people talking about this”). Klein determined the nine classes of the animal kingdom based on the number, shape, and position of limbs—the four-leggers, including coatis, have the biggest chapter by far. Klein used beautiful illustrations commissioned by Albertus Seba (Dutch, 1665 – 1736) to document everything in his own cabinet of curiosities (Facebook for Albertus? 132 likes, 1 talking about—great pictures!).

In the late 1700s, any number of scientists were drawing from these works, and trying to reconcile their information. By this time, though, zoology was “professionalizing,” and people were actually making it to Latin America to study flora and fauna from life using the modern taxomony developed by the Swedish botanist/zoologist Carl Linnaeus (1707 – 78). But it still didn’t work for the coatis; in the 19th century, Anselme Demarest (French, 1784 – 1838), Frédéric Cuvier (French, 1773 – 1838), and the German Prince Maximilian (1782 – 1867) tried to incorporate coloring and coat patterns into species identification coming up with more species with every effort.

The coatis themselves added another wrinkle—they are unique because the wives and kids form into bands, kicking the males out when they get to about be two years old (it’s pretty obvious, that’s when the little guys’ testicles descend). In 1873, Maximilian identified solitary males as a separate species, coming up with Nasua socialis and Nasua solitaria as the two basic species (some credit this to Henri de Saussure [French, 1829 – 1905], who actually traveled to Mexico in 1854). The next scientist collapsed all the coatis into one species, and hard on the heels of that, the next guy divided them into five species, and so on. Because no one had studied coati behavior longitudinally, zoologists were still confusing color combinations and single/solitary well into the twentieth century, with as many as thirty different populations designated as separate species; some popular sources still list four or five different species, rather than the two basic ones generally accepted by scientists.

Even the popular names have been confusing; “coati” and “coati mundi” were terms developed in Brazil to distinguish the family bands (coatis) from the solitary males (coati mundi), and “coatimundi” was used popularly for the species as a whole. The Mexican terms tejón and tejón solo are often translated as “badger,” based on the animal’s appearance and front digging claws.

Meeting Coatis in Huatulco

Because the white-nosed coati is diurnal, i.e., it comes out to forage during the day, you’re quite likely to encounter one or two in Huatulco. Their habitat of choice is forested; they do well in selva seca, the dry tropical jungle that makes up the National Park area of Huatulco. Based on our experience in Santa Cruz, it’s the solitary males who cruise across your balcony, so a walk in the park would probably be your best bet of seeing a band of females and juveniles.

Not counting the tail, which they often carry erect, they can be over two feet long—the tail can be another two feet. The tails have rings, sometimes not very distinct; coatis use their tails for balance when climbing and jumping, and to signal each other. Males are bigger than females, but generally they look pretty much alike. They have narrow heads with small ears and pointed, turned up noses with a large number of sensory receptors, giving them a heightened sense of smell. A coati can completely rotate its nose at a 60º angle to its skull, the better to find bugs and other yummy stuff as they snuffle through leaf litter, as well as to keep their nose dry when they’re lapping up water.

 

Their front claws are long and powerful, the better to dig with once their sharp noses tell them there’s a worm or other invertebrate under the surface. They’re big on tarantulas and scorpions, and will snap up small vertebrates, too—lizards, rodents, small birds—as well as bird and reptile eggs. But when they can get it, they really prefer fruit; wild or cultivated, they’re not fussy. If it’s available, it provides the majority of their diet.

They like to sleep aloft in messy nests, and prefer to go back to the same tree. They’re double-jointed and can rotate their ankles front to back, so with a little “femoral stretching,” they can descend trees head first, with their feet still in the original climbing position for better purchase on the tree trunk.

Should you be lucky enough to see a social group, you’ll be treated to a “happy band” of creatures. They chirp, they whine, they snort, they chitter, they grunt—occasionally, they just plain shriek. They have a range of chirps, from a pleased response to social grooming to a sharp warning when they’re annoyed; chittering and grunting indicate anger. If they snort when they snuffle, and stick they tails straight up, it’s supposed to mean “This is MY worm patch, move on!”

Mating season usually kicks off with the rainy season, although the underlying impetus is connected with food availability. A study in Jalisco concluded that the reproduction schedule included a month of mating starting in late March (they can “do it” in the trees), 11 weeks of gestation, and birthing in the early rainy season (June/July). Usually one male, although occasionally two, joins the band of females and juveniles, and mates with all who will have him. The pregnant females withdraw and build bigger and stronger (but still messy) nests in trees or sometimes in crevices in the rocks; they have three to seven or eight kits, not all of whom make it. The kits emerge remarkably like kittens, with eyes that take 4 – 11 days to open and only the lightest coat of fur. They can raise their tail and walk at about 11 days; when they’re about six weeks, Mom and the kids rejoin the band.

Keeping an Eye on the Coatis

The white-nosed coati appears to be doing fine in Mexico—it is of “least concern” on the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). However, they are hunted for meat and their habitat is being developed out from under them in places like Huatulco. Since there are very few scientific studies of populations, it’s possible that they are more threatened than we realize. It’s definitely not doing so well north of the border, due to habitat loss; it is listed as endangered in New Mexico.

Their natural predators include jaguars, wild cats of various kinds, a big member of the weasel family called a tayra, and any number of animals that prey on the coati kits, not to mention feral dogs. Adults, however, are savage fighters. Their jaws are strong and firmly attached, they have large sharp canine teeth, they can move their clawed feet very fast, and their hide is firmly attached to the musculature beneath, making them hard to grab and shake.

In the wild, they live for up to eight years, dying of disease, predation, and run-ins with cars. In captivity they’ve been known to reach seventeen; they are part of the multi-billion-dollar exotic pet trade. Advertised as friendly and entertaining, a coati kit can currently be bought for $600-$850, and the necessary paraphernalia will run about $400. They are sold as bottle-fed babies; if you continue to bottle-feed them, they will imprint on you as their senior band member, and follow you everywhere. However, like all exotic pets, and for many reasons—common sense and ethics not the least of them—coatis are best left where they live naturally. Or of course, in the trees at the impeccably landscaped Binniguenda Hotel!

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