Popular Science Monthly/Volume 2/December 1872/The Coati-Mondi and its Cousins
SAILORS from South America occasionally, among other pets, bring a small animal, which, because of its long nose, they invariably call an Ant-eater. Thus was a little stranger introduced to our care a few years ago. A glance was enough to see that it was no ant-eater at all, but a pretty female Coati-Mondi. Gallant Jack Tar, her master on ship, unconscious of the incongruity, had made a namesake of her and called her Jack. Science had already named her Nasua, and in a matter-of-fact way, for the word interpreted just means—Nosie. The animal was about the size of a cat, with a thick, coarse fur, of a brownish hue on the back and sides, and underneath shades from yellow to orange. The long tail was ornamented by a series of black and yellowish-brown rings. Her nasal prominence reminded me of a queer Spaniard, once employed in the government service to detect spurious coin. His "counterfeit detector" was a sensitive proboscis. By sticking this organ into the glittering heaps he literally "nosed" out the bad from the good. To that man his nose was the instrument of his profession; and to Nasua her nose was equally important. It even prompted a nick-name and a juvenile pun—"Nosie's nose knows too much!" Inappeasably inquisitive, she was incessantly intruding that organ into every thing. Having made no allowance for an extra-tropical temperature, this little South American made a failure in an attempt to lift with her nose the lid of a pot in the cook's domain. The next attempt, a successful one, was on the knife-box, whose closely-fitting lid was pried open, and every article inspected, in happy ignorance of the proverb about edged tools. It was enough that any thing was hollow to excite her curiosity, which was of a thoroughly simian type. The dinner-bell was turned over; but, unable to detach the clapper and chain, it was soon abandoned in disgust. A round sleigh-bell received more persevering attention. Unable to get her nose or paws into the little hole at the side, the clatter within set her wild with excitement, and evoked a desperate attack on the little annoyance with her teeth. She then gave it up as a bootless job. A bottle of hartshorn was next made the subject of investigation. We had purposely loosened the cork, and promised ourselves a "nice sell" and we got it—not Nosie. She was not in the least disconcerted by the drug. In fact, she had a strong nose for such things. A man gave her his tobacco-box. Resting it on the floor between her two paws, which possessed uncommon flexibility, she turned it over and over, round and round, exercising alternately her nose, claws, and teeth upon it with great energy, but to no avail. It seemed that the smell of its contents infatuated her, as she showed no disposition to stop. The man opened the box for her. She was in rapture. In went the nose, also both front paws. Very soon that wonderfully mobile organ had separated every fibre, so that the mass seemed trebly increased. The same man let her have his dirty pipe, when her velvety nose was instantly squeezed into the rank nicotian bowl.
It would be wrong to infer that Nasua's prying propensity never got her into trouble. In the following instance, speaking metaphorically, she put her foot into it: The old cat had just finished her nap, and was stretching herself, an operation which means that she stood with her four feet close together, the limbs elongated, the back rounded up like that of a camel, the head erect and drawn back, and the mouth yawning widely. Such a sight Nosie had never seen, hence it must
be looked into. So in a trice, erect, and resting flatly on her hind-feet like a little bear, she put her arms round Tabbie's neck, and, reeking with nicotine, down went that inquisitive nose into the depths of the feline fauces. This unwarrantable intrusion was met by a reception more feeling than felicitous, judging from the haste in which Nasua withdrew to a corner of the room to ruminate on the untoward incident. Her method of relieving the injured member was itself original. She placed it between her paws, holding it tightly, then jerked it through them, giving a violent sneeze every time it came out. That sneezing was genuine, because it was involuntary. Both hartshorn and nicotine had signally failed to get up any thing respectable in that line; but that cat-nip, pure and simple, did the business finely.
Quite pretty was the pattern of the animal's ears—they were so clean, trim, soft, and small. Though rather pert, they had an air about them that was really amiable, and such as the canine fancier would pronounce elegant. She was not averse to a little fondling, and I well remember the first time she climbed upon my lap. Those pretty ears suddenly quivered. The ticking of my watch had excited her. Down goes that ubiquitous utilitarian organ into the watch-pocket. Failing with the nose, she makes a desperate effort with that and both fore-feet all at once. Still unable to evict that case of mystery, she thrusts her nose down by its side, and for several minutes, with simian quaintness, listens to the ticking of mortal Time.
On the above occasion Coati was allowed the liberty often taken by the little dog, of going to sleep on my lap, while I gave myself up to the enjoyment of my book. Her nap finished, I did not notice when she left my lap. Soon a noise was heard like the tearing of paper. The wonderful little beast had abstracted my pocket-diary, and in violation of all propriety was making heavy extracts in a . Those keen incisors were scissoring away—a full leaf at a time! She had even filched a five-dollar note out of the pouch of the book, and, by way of change, had converted it into fractional currency.
In the same manner, though not to the same extent, the nose of the Nasua, like the same organ of the elephant, projects far beyond the mouth. At our first acquaintance with the animal, we were anxious to see if it could drink out of a deep, narrow vessel. So a mug, containing about a gill of milk, was set before her. She instantly turned up the proboscis toward her forehead, and, in the easiest way imaginable, lapped the vessel dry. The organ was not even wet. The sight, though comical, was really pretty. It was the only time that I had ever seen the turning up of the nose at one's friends so deftly and gracefully done. And she could turn the same organ in a contrary way quite as easily. The first time she confronted a mirror, startled at beholding her own counterfeit presentment, instantly her countenance fell—very low indeed; for her nose bent downward, and actually curved under the chin. Of course the word chin is not here anatomically correct. Her proboscis now looked like that of a tapir in repose. This singular grimace, with its squeaky little grunts, presented a very funny manifestation of surprise.
Sometimes for an airing the animal was tied by a long tether to a flower-stand on the lawn. It should have been mentioned that she was literally omnivorous. She would catch a mouse and eat it all up. The heads of poultry given her in the kitchen would be eaten ravenously. The same is true of sweetmeats, which she occasionally got by stealth. She would drink every thing, not even stopping at brandy. She had nearly all the of the domestic swine; and the end of her proboscis was essentially a swine's snout. I now beheld the use of this singularly-tipped organ. And an interesting sight it was to see that little thing plough up the greensward with the tip of her nose—and so easily. Here appeared the veritable swinish acuteness of scent for insects and worms, and the swinish facility for rooting in the ground. With surprising rapidity furrow after furrow was made, of about the width of a man's thumb. Whenever a worm or insect was discovered, as when drinking, the nose was curved up, so that the mouth could extract the object from the furrow.
The tail of Nasua is quite suggestive of the raccoon; but Nasua's tail is a much handsomer affair—longer, and with rings more numerous and of gayer colors. With admirable intelligence, our pet put this beautiful appendage to a remarkable use. She was tethered by a string to a chair, and an egg was put on the floor at a tantalizing distance. She could just touch it with a paw, and that touch caused the coveted prize to roll out of reach. She then turned her hind-feet toward it, pulling hard so as to stretch her neck; still even with a hind-foot she could not touch it. The logic of events was now, "Get it if you can!" All this Nasua well understood, for she turned tail on the subject altogether—not, however, as did Reynard on the grapes, but strategically. She gathered herself up, and looked at the coveted object with speculative eyes. Then she swung herself round again, pulling hard on the tether by the neck. She then curved the tip of the tail so as to make a little hook. Now she grasps the base of the tail
with one paw, as with a hand, thus stiffening and steadying the organ. She next slowly and cautiously rolled the egg, by the curved tip of the tail, through a section of a circle, until it was brought within reach of one of the front-feet. The egg now seized, sitting on her hind-feet, like a bear, she cracks it, extracts the contents, and neither spills a drop on the floor, nor so much as soils that wonderful nose; for, among her many gifts, is her soft and extensile tongue. This caudal expedient is sometimes found with the American show-monkey, when a bit of gingerbread is put by the roguish boys at an inconvenient distance; but, as, in such instance, the tail is prehensile, is in fact the monkey's fifth hand, such feat is no great shakes after all, but is quite in keeping with what the organ is cut out for. It is, at most, but little more than that instinct which structural or functional capacity might evolve. But, in Nasua's case, it is animal contrivance, pure and simple. There is, too, a latent fact which peeps out here: for this bending of the caudal tip looks to the faculty possessed by its cousin, the Kinkajou, the extremity of whose tail has a prehensile or grasping faculty of high perfection.
She showed considerable attachment—her preference being the ladies. She would often, when tied up in the kitchen, sit for many minutes, her little black eyes looking wistfully at the door through which the mistress of the house had passed, and all this time crying pitifully. It was a plaintive cry, in the minor key, and yet a little funny, for it greatly resembled the chirping of a cricket, though not quite so shrill, and the intervals between the notes were a little longer. This tiny cry required for every note a muscular exertion, extending far down the sides of the body, which led to the suggestion that "the plaint came from the depths of the heart."
Though at times somewhat irascible, this little animal was very playful with those who could understand and humor her ways. And her method in play was a good deal like that of a dog. She would take my fingers into her mouth, and make believe to bite, and would roll on her back in manifest glee. It required at first some courage to take part in her gambols. On one occasion, thinking that she gave me too hard a nip with her teeth, I returned her a smart slap in the face. This experience was novel and startling, and caused her to open her mouth and chatter as a terrified monkey does. On one occasion she so far forgot herself as to bite me quite severely. It was but one snap of the mouth a more spurt of temper. I gave her such punishment as I considered judicious. For a while she kept up a snapping at me, accompanied by a monkey-like chattering of rage and fear. At last she laid down her head in submission. I then stroked and patted her. It was now all made up, and we were friends again. On this subject
of punishment I soon learned an important fact. You might slap and shake this little thing quite severely, when her will was crossed, or a slight fit of temper was upon her, without subduing her. She had, however, a wholesome dread of the rod. A twig not thicker than a straw was sufficient. A blow from this, although it scarcely ruffled the fur, would reduce her to instant and complete submission. The exhibitor of wild animals understands the virtue of his little whip.
The attachment of this interesting animal to her new home was intense. I frequently caused her to be taken to the commons and set at liberty among the trees. Considering that the coati is a thoroughly arboreal animal, and such its agility that it descends trees head first, one would suppose that this would awaken the dormant natural habits; but she would invariably hasten home by the shortest route possible; and, if, on her return, she found the door closed, would sit on the steps and cry.
One morning, at an early hour, coati was missed from the kitchen. A search was set up. The ringing voice of our little boy was heard, with the occasional word, "Jack." And so it was—Jack was in bed with the little three-year-old, and they were having a high time together. This trick she played whenever opportunity allowed. Often, at an early hour before the child was awake, have we found Jack self-ensconced in the arms of his little master. Of course, prudence dictated that this should not be permitted; but Jack would steal upstairs so noiselessly that the thing was often done before we had time to suspect.
A word is necessary as to the peculiar temerity of this animal. From two points it was liable to give way to extreme impulsiveness—the excitement of opposition, or of inquisitiveness. If any thing attacked her, whatever the object or the odds might be, she would face the assailant, and close in with her shrill little squeaks of rage, and in a wild sort of dash. If one slapped her, whatever might be her terror, she would rush upon and snap at the hand. The dog-like sagacity of running under the table or chair was not her way. Hers was the peccary instinct of running upon danger. No monkey could be a more importunate or impertinent teaser than was our coati; but Jocko shows sagacity with his jokes—for he always adroitly leaps aside of consequences. I have watched our pet tease the cat with imperturbable persistency, until Tabbie, unable to tolerate matters any longer, has struck her sharp claws into that soft proboscis, then moved away, leaving her persecutor dazed with astonishment. Then, in a moment, forgetting all, she would turn her attention to the setter-dog, and, despite his growls and menacing teeth, would keep up a systematic worrying, catching at his tail, nipping at his legs, and even poking her nose into
his ears. At length, the poor brute, fairly goaded into rage, seized her like a rat, and, but for my prompt interference, that would have been the last display of Nasua's rashness. One morning she got into the dining-room as we were at breakfast. She took possession of madam's lap. Her first act was to poke her nose at the coffee-urn. This evoked a squeak of pain. It was supposed that she had had enough. Not quite. Her next essay was on a cup of hot coffee, with a similar result. She now smelt the contents of the sugar-bowl. This discovery so excited that "sweet will" of hers that instant removal became imperative. Later in the day she tried to capture a wasp. She struck it down, and held it a second under her foot. This was met by an appeal addressed solely to her understanding, of so pointed a nature as made her chatter with distress. Disabled in one wing, the insect could not fly away. Although still smarting from the wounded foot, the moral of the lesson is only half learned. Coati cannot give "little yellow-jacket" up. So she tries the wasp again—this time with her nose. Alas, that sting! Miss Nasua now finds that other little folks, besides herself, can utilize their tails; for, in proof of this, she receives
not merely a duplicated, but an intensified experience, such as exacts a staccato outgush of agony, of truly simian expression. We can recall but one lesson which she took sincerely to heart. The old cow was quietly ruminating near the house. With her usual temerity, for she was always ready to "go it blind," Coati made an attempt to climb one of Cushie's legs. The cow raised her foot to shake the annoyance off, and in setting it down she put her hoof on Nasua's tail, and there standing, gravely ruminating, held her fast to the ground. Her rapid, chattering cry brought one of the ladies to her rescue. The tail was very badly hurt. Ever after, between Coati and Cushie, a respectful distance was maintained.
We now call attention to one of the most interesting facts in modern zoology. Agassiz pointed out, with much precision, the existence in certain animals, both fossil and recent, of two sets of traits—one proper to, and marking their peculiar individuality as members of an order, tribe, or family; and the other set, although found in them, yet destined to a fuller unfolding in animals yet to be created, and to mark their peculiarities. In a word, the species in question was regarded as looking forward to or foreshadowing, in these seemingly eccentric traits, the characteristics of tribes yet to come. As, for example, take the ancient Ganoids, or fishes, covered with shining, bony scales, as the word signifies. Their common representative, now, is the sturgeon, which, though a fish, has structural and physiological points that belong to the reptiles. Regarding these curious traits as put together in one individual, and in a sense to be yet separated from it, and specialized in other and higher animals, Agassiz invented, felicitously, as we think, a term to express these facts, namely, "synthetic type." Dana prefers the phrase "comprehensive type," and Guyot uses the term "undivided type."
The study of this almost grotesque little animal has proved singularly suggestive of certain points of structure and habit, usually regarded as peculiarities of other animals. In Nasua are found features which elsewhere are sufficiently dominant to warrant generic distinction—as the architect can specify certain points in the Composite order which are derived from several other orders. To designate the parts that make up this strange unity in our subject may not be easy. The botanist is, at times, perplexed in his effort to formulate the specific distinctions of a simple plant. Let him take an oak, for example—and it may be that the analysis is unsatisfactory; yet the specific conception of the tree, taken from its contour and entirety, may, for all that, be quite trustworthy. To the writer, the Nasua, viewed as a whole in the matter of structure, form, and habit, has appeared to be a synthetic, or comprehensive type—not, perhaps, a composite, as made up of what had been before, but possibly typical of what was to come. Limited strictly to anatomical analysis, the typical range would be narrowed; but, studied in the above more exhaustive method, the diagnosis must, we think, be highly significant. It may appear a superficial resemblance that is presented in the ornamentation of the respective tails of the coati and the raccoon. But these animals have also anatomical parallels of structure. Both have a similar dental arrangement, and both have plantigrade limbs. Here, again, the coati, with the coon, becomes cousin to the bear, for all three have that structure which compels that setting down at once the entire great sole of the foot, and that walking thereon, which the books denominate plantigrade. The three, also, have similarly-shaped heads, similar small eyes, small, trim ears, and peculiar claws, which are, all and several, known as ursine traits. They have also not unlike appetencies of food. They are plantigrade carnivora, and have in common a striking habit which removes them from the pure or digitigrade carnivora, namely, that of raising their food with the paws toward the mouth, and bowing the head to meet it half-way. The coati and raccoon will tear the food into fragments, and sticking into it the claws, like an improvised fork, will thus convey it to the mouth. Who ever saw a dog or cat raise its food from the ground, except by its mouth? Our Nasua, then, has elements of ursine structure, aspect, and habit.
But this little animal has also something of the appetency, structure, and habit of the swine. Look only at the cut of Nasua asleep, and mark the resemblance of the end of its proboscis to the snout of the hog. The engraving is from a photograph, and gives an admirable foreshortening of the organ. We have shown that in function it is identical; for the animal roots precisely as a hog. Here it looks toward the swine through the peccary, that hog-like animal of its own country. We have also noticed that, in a common recklessness, they—the coati and the peccary—bear a psychic similitude. Both have a habit of wildly confronting danger, and both have been known to overcome great perils, and to repulse superior enemies, by actual temerity—real sauciness, or sheer effrontery of dash.
And there is that remarkable proboscis, which actually supplies the generic name—an organ so mobile, and so effective, and so facile of disposition and adjustment. Herein, through the tapir, appears an elephantine expression point of relationship.
Then come those traits so simian—that inappeasable inquisitiveness, and that capacity for quasi-human expedients, and that monkey vice of incessant teasing, and that monkey chattering, expressing terror or distress. It is true that here we seem to stand entirely on metaphysical ground, as we cannot demonstrate any anatomical points of structure related to these traits. And we admit that, in these matters, we have no right to demand conviction unless from logic so formulated. Still the traits are there; and we feel that these traits, physiognomical and psychic, cannot stand unrelated to some important physiological data, which may perhaps place Nasua a little below the Lemurs in rank, through which inchoate monkeys it may look toward the Cebidæ, to its distant relatives, the South American Sapajous. And what striking resemblances to these well-known monkeys are noticeable in the Kinkajou, first cousin of the Coati-Mondi.
We close with a great truth which this little creature unfolds, of surpassing interest. As a synthetic type, this little being is very ancient, even on the geological record. Its lineage goes high up the stream of animal life. The first coati-mondi told off certain points of the great zoological plan yet to be unfolded. It typified the raccoon yet to come, and the peccary, and the swine, and the bear, the tapir, and the elephant; and, as a faint, yet expressive signification, it told, on its psychic side, at least, of the monkey, as the crown of the dumb creation. And by the same record we read the superior antiquity of the so-called New World to the Old: for the ancestors of Nasua were pursuing their prey in the American woods ere Asia and Europe had risen from their baptism under the sea.
And not zoological only, but may we not read, in this "comprehensive type," a geological prophecy also, that, in the far-off future, our continent shall again sink into the transforming waters, when His behest cometh, who maketh all things new?