Next time you're hiking in the Catalina Mountains, keep an eye out for a long-tailed, long-snouted critter that looks like a jazzed-up raccoon.
That would be a coati - and your chances of spotting one in the range north of Tucson might be better than ever.
Reported sightings of agile, tree-climbing, grub-munching coatis are on the rise in lower reaches of the Catalinas - including popular Sabino Canyon, says Josh Taiz, a biologist with the U.S. Forest Service.
"It seems, without any specific data, that there may be more coatis in the front range of the Catalinas (the part of the range facing Tucson) than there have been," says Taiz, noting that coatis, or coatimundis, often favor oak-woodland terrain at higher elevations.
"But without (research) data, it's important not to jump to conclusions" about the population or preferred habitat of coatis, Taiz says.
A coati was spotted ambling down the Sabino Canyon road "walking right between people" last year, Taiz says. On another occasion, a coati caught small fish from a pool in Sabino Creek and ate them.
The apparent increase in sightings could indicate a change in the coati population - but not necessarily.
"If there is, indeed, a change in the population, I'm not sure what it would be associated with," Taiz says.
Another possibility is that changes in the mountain habitat might be causing coatis to move into areas where they're more readily seen.
"In 2002 and 2003, we had big forest fires in the Catalinas that kid of reset everything," Taiz says. "It's possible that, over time, a habitat change has occurred and we're seeing the long-term effects."
Or maybe the increase in reported coati sightings stems from nothing more than serendipity.
"When it comes to seeing wildlife," observes Heidi Schewel of the Forest Service, "it's mainly just a matter of being in the right place at the right time."
We've seen them, too
Among hikers who have seen coatis in lower reaches of the Catalinas in the past year are two Arizona Daily Star employees.
Coati spotter: Rick Wiley, director of photography
Sighting: Saw about a dozen in Pima Canyon last spring.
Coati spotter: Doug Kreutz, outdoor writer and author of this article
Sighting: Two bands in the Catalinas since November - and that was after not spotting a coati in the range for more than 20 years.
Contact reporter Doug Kreutz at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 573-4192.