A strange escapee from the teeming tropics had made it to Rim Country.
Recently, a motorist hit and killed an unexpected newcomer just outside of Payson — a coatimundi.
These long-nosed, heavy-bodied, furry-tailed relatives of the raccoon have been spreading northward out of the Mexican tropics for more than a century.
They expanded in a spurt out of Mexico into the southernmost “Sky Island” mountains of southeastern Arizona in the early 1900s, in an abrupt movement that still puzzles ecologists.
Now, at least a vanguard of the highly social omnivores may have established a beachhead in the oak woodlands of Rim Country.
Arizona Game and Fish spokesperson Lynda Lambert said biologists consider Payson on the extreme northern edge of the creatures’ range.
“I spoke to one of our small mammal biologists and she said that she has seen them on occasion that far north and considers it on the northern edge of their range,” said Lambert.
However, the dark, cinnamon-brown creatures remain a startling rarity even for veteran outdoorsmen in Rim Country. Coatis have a long snout they use to root about in the soil and logs for grubs and insects. They also readily flip over rocks to hunt snakes and lizards, with formidable looking claws. They can readily climb trees to go after bird nests and typically spend the heat of the day and the dark of the night holed up in trees or caves.
The females and their young form troops during most of the year and in Arizona prefer oak woodlands and sycamore-dominated riparian areas.
The males wander more widely, traveling alone for most of the year. That raises the possibility that the animal killed by the motorist on the highway outside of Payson was a male on a forlorn search for a mate. The males will join the female troops during the mating season, then head off again on their own. Adults are about two feet long and weigh up to about 18 pounds.
Rim Country already abounds with raccoons — omnivores more confined to streams and other permanent water sources, who grow to three feet in length and as much as 30 pounds.
Another close relative of the coatimundi found locally is the ringtail, with a length of about 32 inches and a weight of up to 2.5 pounds — more squirrel sized than raccoon sized. They climb trees readily and den in caves, crevices and trees. Also ranging through Rim Country, the shy, nocturnal animals live on fruit, birds, snakes and insects.
Biologists remain mystified by the inexorable spread of the coatimundi into Arizona. Some speculate that the coati first made their way north during the great drought of the early 1900s, which left the bodies of dead cows scattered across southern Arizona. The omnivorous coati could have made their way scavenging from cattle carcass to cattle carcass up out of Mexico and into the mountain ranges like the Chiricahuas and others.
They spread out of the tropics, where they faced fierce competition from a host of tropical species, including monkeys. Several research reports indicate that monkeys prey readily on the coatimundi pups, left in treetop nests while their parents go off to forage.
One recent study published in Brain, Behavior and Evolution found that the coatimundi had the largest frontal cortex in the Procyonid family, which includes raccoons, coatimundi and kinkajou. The most social member of their family, coati live in troops of 20 or more. The coati had an enlargement in areas of the brain that in human beings also correlate with social skills.