Mountain Coati (Nasuella meridensis, Nasuella olivacea): Ringtail of Lofty Andean Highlands

by DerdriuMarriner

The mountain coati (Nasuella spp) is a charmingly photogenic, elusively agile, environmentally critical wild dweller of lofty heights in northern South America's northern Andes.

The least studied carnivore in the world can be considered a ghost species.

The term designates a living organism whose information is collected through examination of specimens in the collections of natural history museums. The data-gathering sometimes gets supplemented by the in-house commentaries and scholarly publications of the institution’s departmental curators. Empirical evidence and scientific summaries give clarification or inject confusion depending upon:
•potency of technology;
•precision of identification;
•purity of specimen.

The dubious distinction of being the world’s most un-researched meat-eater goes to the Andean mountain coati of northern South America. The honor lingers despite the nimble mammal’s sharing name recognition with:
•beloved brown-nosed coatis (Nasua nasua) of continental South America and insular Chile;
•lovable white-nosed coatis (Nasua narica) of mainland Central, North and South America and insular southern Mexico.
It also makes possible:
•misidentification of animals in captivity and in the wild;
•misperception of species’ lifestyles;
•misunderstanding of wilderness’ stresses.

All three obstacles may be encountered in the case of the mountain coati. For example, zoo personnel and visitors in Broussard, Louisiana; Columbus, Ohio; and Moorpark, California misidentify the more accessible brown-nosed coati as the more elusive mountain coati. Researchers and wildlife-lovers misperceive the obligate role of mountain coatis solely as pollinators and seed-dispersers.

Excepting locals and poachers, everyone misunderstands the consequences, for high altitude-adapted wildlife, of agro-industry’s expansion into loftier elevations.

White-nosed Coati (Nasua narica): their habitat is north of North Andean mountain coati's homeland.



Mountain coatis belong to the genus Nasuella within the raccoon family, Procyonidae. Scientists consider the mountain coati a sister lineage geographically sandwiched between two expressions of the genus Nasua.

  • To the north of the north Andean mountain coati is the white-nosed coati’s northern neotropical homeland.
  • To the northeast and south lies the brown-nosed coati’s central/southern neotropical domain.

Brown-nosed and white-nosed coatis overlap in enough habitat preferences and structural features to justify occupying one genus. They prefer such diverse geographical distributions and preserve such unique external traits as to warrant occupying different species. Brown-nosed and white-nosed coatis resemble one another more closely than the mountain coati. Mountain coatis – slightly but sufficiently – recall brown-nosed coatis to the inexperienced viewer.

Even for experienced viewers, identification issues arise over a mountain coati’s species. There in fact can be more than one kind of mountain coati. The genus Nasuella divides into two species:

  • The eastern mountain coati, whose scientific name is Nasuella meridensis;
  • The western mountain coati, Nasuella olivacea.

Both the eastern and the western mountain coati may be intended when the following common names are employed:

  • Coatí andino, cuchucho andino, and cusumbo andino in Spanish;
  • Dwarf coati and little coati in English.

The western mountain coati additionally responds to the common names of:

  • Coatí quiteño, cuchucho quiteño, and cusumbo quiteño in Spanish;
  • Quito coati in English.

The western mountain coati further subdivides into the subspecies Nasuella olivacea quitensis.


16th century watercolor by Ulisse Aldrovandi (September 11, 1522 – May 4, 1605)
16th century watercolor by Ulisse Aldrovandi (September 11, 1522 – May 4, 1605)


The head-and-body length of the mature mountain coati can hover around 14.17-15.35 inches (36-39 centimeters). Some sources describe the known maximum head-and-body length as reaching 31.5 inches (80 centimeters). The mountain coati’s tail length matures to a length about 50-65% of the head-to-rear length. The 6-8 ringed tail typically measures 7.87-9.45 inches (20-24 centimeters). The mature shoulder height may reach 26.38-29.53 inches (67-75 centimeters). The hair-covered, rounded, short ears realize mature lengths of 14.96-20.47 inches (38-52 centimeters). They represent a cuddly contrast to the mountain coati’s elongated, pointed snout.

Aggression, meal-time and vocalizations reveal 36 adult teeth portioned – to each side (left, right) of each jaw (lower, upper) as:

  • Two canines;
  • Three incisors;
  • Two molars;
  • Three premolars.


Mountain coatis exhibit darker or lighter variations of black, brown and grey. The face has no symmetrically rounded markings to accentuate the arboreal mammal’s ears, eyes, muzzle or snout. From head to rear, the mountain coati impresses viewers with the general uniformity of a black or grey to olive brown coat. Golden yellow-tipped, longer hairs regularly lighten a brown mountain coati’s coat. Darker colors predominate along:

  • Legs, which may be black or dark grey;
  • Tails, which showcase distinctly black or olive brown rings.

The eastern mountain coati tends toward:

  • Lighter, paler colors;
  • Shorter tail lengths;
  • Smaller shapes, teeth and weights.

They additionally will differ from western mountain coatis in exhibiting a dark mid-dorsal stripe along the back.



Little coatis are native to the world’s longest continental mountain range, the Andes of western South America. Eastern dwarf coatis favor southwestern Venezuela’s Andean highlands. Western dwarf coatis inhabit the Andean highlands which traverse the Latin American countries of:

  • Colombia and Ecuador;
  • Peru, where they constitute one of the 21st century’s scientific discoveries, with hither-unknown populations settled in the Apurímac-Cuzco area, 620+ miles (1,000+ kilometers) from the species’ known range.

In so doing, mountain coati ranges may overlap with those of brown-nosed coatis. Any overlap pertains to the same slopes at non-overlapping elevations.

  • Eastern mountain coatis prefer altitudes of 6,600-13,000 feet (2,000-4,000 meters) above sea level.
  • Western mountain coatis remove to elevations of 4,300-13,940 feet (1,300-4,250 meters).


Alpine tundra and cloud forests cover the landscapes in which a dwarf coati’s life unfurls. The term alpine tundra describes the type of vegetation which grows in what Spanish language-speakers call the páramo. High mountain vegetation mainly involves:

  • Grasses;
  • Rosette plants;
  • Shrubs.

It is found between a mountain’s continuous forest and permanent snow lines. Such lofty elevations project a predominantly foggy, misty look. For example, the upper tree canopy in Andean fog forests reaches into low-lying clouds so that the tops are not visible from the ground. Frequent rainfall events and high moisture levels yield:

  • Aerial flowering plants, such as bromeliads and orchids;
  • Filmy ferns;
  • Lichens and mosses;
  • Stunted, thick-trunked trees such as alders, laurels, and oaks.


Páramo landscape of dwarf coati:

Boyacá, central Colombia, almost entirely within Eastern Cordillera mountains to Venezuelan border
Páramo de Rabanal, Boyacá, central Colombia
Páramo de Rabanal, Boyacá, central Colombia


Little is known about the lifestyles of either the eastern or the western mountain coati. Researchers speculate that the low crowns and sharp crests which characterize a mountain coati’s teeth reflect a diet which is:  

  • Higher in amphibians, arthropods, and small mammals and reptiles;
  • Lower in fruits.

They suggest that female mountain coatis – who forage in bands -- consume more beetles, grubs and termites. They think that male mountain coatis – who forage alone – eat more frogs, lizards and mice. They understand from area farmers, hunters and trekkers that older females will bark alarm and send all males and juvenile females scampering up trees when such predators as boas, jaguars and raptors attempt to interfere with meal-time foraging.


Andean mountain coatis appreciate spending as much time as possible in platform nests in a tree’s upper canopy. They contribute to tree health by eating bark-dwelling arthropods. Their powerful limbs and reversible ankles nevertheless encourage them to descend trunks, head-first and squirrel-like. On the ground, they perform the additional environmentally-friendly roles of:

  • Aerating the soil by digging – which leaves as many as 5,000+ fine holes over a 35-square-mile (90.65-square-kilometer) area and prevents claw overgrowth -- for sub-soil and surface-level animals;
  • Controlling population levels and predator-prey interactions through natural enmity toward amphibians, arthropods, and small mammals and reptiles;
  • Dispersing seeds;
  • Pollinating plants through nectar-licking.

Mountain coati behavior in non-foraging matters – such as breeding, gestating, and kit-raising – remains mysterious.


Typical páramo vegetation, Lake Caricocha, northern Ecuador

Mojanda caldera
Mojanda caldera


Local farmers, hunters and trekkers are traditional eyewitness sources to mountain coati behavior. Historically, they nevertheless face challenges in obtaining information since dwarf coatis usually avoid interactions outside their band and their predator-prey obligations. But the situation inexorably is changing because of agro-industry’s conversion of:

  • Cloud forest lands into agriculture;
  • Páramo lands into pine forests.

The development of ever higher mountain slopes in fact may be responsible for habitat degradation and losses which are estimated at over 36% in terms of traditional Andean mountain coati-dwelling zones. It may result in higher visibility for the elusive dwarf coati. Little coati interactions with farmers already seem to be on the increase since foraging now includes farm animals and crops.


The future depends upon the dwarf coati’s strongest advocate and fur-and-meat-hunting predator: humankind. Optimism hinges on:

  • Colombia’s Bioparque La Reserva at Cota;
  • Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History Mammals Curator Kristofer Helgen’s research.

Such wildlife-urban interfaces impact distances between mountain-dwellers and mountain-lovers. They inspire stresses unknown to previous time-dwellers. They simultaneously jump-start real-timing mountain coati life-stories beyond excellent “ghosts" in:

  • Chicago’s Field Museum;
  • D.C.’s Smithsonian Museum;
  • London’s Natural History Museum;
  • New York’s American Natural History Museum;
  • Quito’s Museo de Zoología;
  • Stockholm’s Naturhistoriska Riksmuseet.


They offer fitting follow-ups to Ulisse Aldrovandi’s (1522-1605) and John Edward Gray’s (1800-1875) pioneering depictions and descriptions. For tree-hugging, mountain-loving dwarf coatis, they reinforce Clintonian beliefs “in a place called Hope” (July 16, 1992).


woodcut illustration of mountain coati by Italian naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi (September 11, 1522 – May 4, 1605)

Ulisse Aldrovandi, De quadrupedibus digitatis viviparis (1637), Volume II, p. 267
Ulisse Aldrovandi, De quadrupedibus digitatis viviparis (1637), Volume II, p. 267



My special thanks to talented artists and photographers/concerned organizations who make their fine images available on the internet.


Ulisse Aldrovandi: 16th century Italian naturalist who illustrated Mountain Coati (Nasuella olivacea)

Ritratto di Ulisse Aldrovandi ("Portrait of Ulisse Aldrovandi"): oil on canvas by Bartolomeo Passarotti (1529 – 1592)
Ritratto di Ulisse Aldrovandi ("Portrait of Ulisse Aldrovandi"): oil on canvas by Bartolomeo Passarotti (1529 – 1592)

Sources Consulted


ARKive. (2010). Nasuella olivacea in Ecuador. Retrieved on December 31, 2013.

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Bisby F.A., Y.R. Roskov, T.M. Orrell, D. Nicolson, L.E. Paglinawan, N. Bailly, P.M. Kirk, T. Bourgoin, G. Baillargeon, D. Ouvrard. (eds.) (2011). "Nasuella." Species 2000 & ITIS Catalogue of Life: 2011 Annual Checklist. Retrieved on December 31, 2013.

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Clinton, President Bill. "I Still Believe in a Place Called Hope." Democratic Retrieved on December 31, 2013.

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Damiesela. Los Mapaches, Olingos y Coatíes. El Coatí Andino, Nasuella olivacea. Retrieved on December 31, 2013.

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Eisenberg J.E. (1989). Mammals of the Neotropics. Volume 1: The Northern Neotropics. University of Chicago Press.

Eisenberg J.F. and K.H. Redford. (1999). Mammals of the Neotropics. Volume 3: The Central Neotropics. University of Chicago Press.

Helgen K. M., R. Kays, L.E. Helgen, M.T.N. Tsuchiya-Jerep, C.M. Pinto, K.P. Koepfli, J.E. Maldonado. (August 2009). "Taxonomic boundaries and geographic distributions revealed by an integrative systematic overview of the mountain coatis, Nasuella (Carnivora: Procyonidae)." Small Carnivore Conservation 41:65-74. Retrieved on December 31, 2013. 

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Hogue T. (2003). "Nasuella olivacea mountain coati" (On-line). Animal Diversity Web. Retrieved on December 31, 2013.

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Mountain coati. The Animal Retrieved on December 31, 2013.

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"Nasuella olivacea." In: Santiago Burneo (ed.). Mamíferos de Ecuador. Quito: Museo de Zoología, Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador. Version 2013.0. Retrieved on December 31, 2013.

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Procyonidae. Wild Retrieved on December 31, 2013.

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Reid F. & K. Helgen. (2008). Nasuella olivacea mountain coati. In: IUCN 2013. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.2. Retrieved on December 31, 2013.

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Rodríguez-Bolaños A., P. Sánchez. (2000). "Trophic characteristics in social groups of the Mountain coati, Nasuella olivacea (Carnivora: Procyonidae). Small Carnivore Conservation 23:1-6.

Rodríguez-Bolaños, A., P. S·nchez. 2000. Trophic characteristics in social groups of the Mountain coati, *Nasuella olivacea* (Carnivora: Procyonidae). Small Carnivore Conservation, October 2000 Vol. 23: 1-6.
Rodríguez-Bolaños, A., P. S·nchez. 2000. Trophic characteristics in social groups of the Mountain coati, *Nasuella olivacea* (Carnivora: Procyonidae). Small Carnivore Conservation, October 2000 Vol. 23: 1-6.
Rodríguez-Bolaños, A., P. S·nchez. 2000. Trophic characteristics in social groups of the Mountain coati, *Nasuella olivacea* (Carnivora: Procyonidae). Small Carnivore Conservation, October 2000 Vol. 23: 1-6

WildlifeExtra. (September 2010). First ever Mountain coati in captivity in Colombia. Retrieved on December 31, 2013.

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Wilson D.E. and D.M. Reeder. (2005). Mammal Species of the World: A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference. 3rd edition. Johns Hopkins University Press.


Ecology of sustainability of mountain coati populations:

Devastation from wind erosion and overgrazing in páramo landscape.
Chimborazo foothills, central Ecuador
Chimborazo foothills, central Ecuador
the end which is also the beginning
the end which is also the beginning

Mammals of the Neotropics (Volume 3 ): The Central Neotropics: Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil

Despite intense interest in this biologically diverse and ecologically important region, the mammals of South America are still not well known. This indispensable guide fills this gap.
South America's mammals

North and South America: black t-shirt

Mountain coatis have homelands on the South American continent.
North and South America
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DerdriuMarriner, All Rights Reserved
DerdriuMarriner, All Rights Reserved
Updated: 10/19/2021, DerdriuMarriner
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DerdriuMarriner on 01/03/2014

VioletteRose, Mountain coatis sometimes seem to get lost in the shuffle, especially through misidentification for their more familiar relatives.
They are indeed interesting.

VioletteRose on 01/03/2014

Interesting, I never knew about this animal.

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