Over the past few years, rangers at Walnut Canyon National Monument have frequently received questions about an unfamiliar animal being observed within the park. Visitors describe a stocky animal similar to a badger or raccoon with a very long tail held in an upright position. Sightings range from within the canyon along the Island Trail, to the Rim Tail that meanders through pinon-juniper woodlands.
It’s no surprise that visitors and residents of this region are unfamiliar with this animal, as northern Arizona is the northernmost extent of its range. White-nosed coati (Nasua narica), AKA coatimundi, are found from northern Arizona to as far south as Colombia.
Members of the Procyonidae family, coatis are related to more familiar species like raccoons and ring-tailed cats. Found foraging on the ground, or maneuvering through trees, these prolific climbers use long, curved, sharp claws for digging and climbing. Their long tails, as long as the rest of their bodies, help them balance as they forage for food in trees.
Coatis’ expansive range likely results from their varied diet. Coatis are omnivorous, consuming lizards, rodents, snakes and eggs as well as fruits, seeds and berries. Utah juniper berries are a staple of their diet at Walnut Canyon.
Coatis are usually seen individually at Walnut Canyon, but occasionally in groups up to three or four. Elsewhere in Arizona, these familial animals can be observed in groups of up to 40 members.
Although seldom recorded in park records, sightings aren’t new to Walnut Canyon. According to the park’s archives, the first documented sighting was of two coatis spotted “just outside the monument” on Aug. 19, 1952 by then-superintendent Meredith Guillet. Regional Archaeologist Charlie Steen observed one coati on the monument’s entrance road in June of 1958. Recent sightings by park staff and visitors have been of a pair of coati, an adult and what appeared to be a juvenile.
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These observations raise the question: why have individuals and/or small groups of coati moved into Walnut Canyon? One hypothesis comes from NAU biology professor Tad Theimer. Theimer’s explanation revolves around the varied landscapes, micro-climates and diverse flora found within the monument.
Because of its very different north- and south-facing canyon wall niches, Walnut Canyon is home to more than 400 species of plants. South-facing canyon walls, warmed by the direct light of the sun, are dominated by the pinon-juniper plant community that can be found in Arizona at elevations as low as 4,500 feet. Common desert plants like banana yucca, prickly pear cactus and claret cup cactus are also found here.
In contrast, the shady north-facing sides of the canyon hosts plants normally found at higher elevations (up to 8,700 feet). The trees include Douglas fir, ponderosa pine and gamble oak. Together, these distinctive communities provide diverse food sources for wildlife in the area.
Theimer theorizes that Walnut Canyon’s extensive south-facing walls provide optimal habitat for animals like the white-nosed coati. Drier and warmer than the surrounding landscape, these slopes allowed desert-adapted animals like the white-nosed coati to expand their range into the monument. This environment has also likely helped coatis survive Flagstaff’s cold and snowy winters.
The thrill of seeing wild animals in their natural habitat draws many of us to explore our public lands. Walnut Canyon National Monument is no different. Set aside primarily to protect Native American cliff dwellings and the region’s rich cultural history, Walnut Canyon’s designation as a national monument also serves to protect critical habitat that is essential for rare and endangered species.
So the next time you visit the park to see the cliff dwellings or take in the views of the canyon, you might just be fortunate enough to observe one of northern Arizona’s most unique animals: the white-nosed coati.