With its long, bushy tail, big eyes and rust-colored fur, the olinguito is being described as a cute-as-a-button combination of house cat and teddy bear. It’s actually the smallest member of the raccoon family, and more importantly, the first new species of carnivore to be identified in the Western Hemisphere since 1978. After nearly a decade of research and exploration, a team of scientists has identified thousands of the cute creatures living in the cloud forests of Colombia and Ecuador, among the peaks of the Andes Mountains. This week, they unveiled their findings in a news conference held at the Smithsonian Institution.
The identification of the newest species of mammal, the olinguito, solves a long-running mystery in the scientific and zoological community. Over the years, the animal has been misidentified as the olingo, a related member of the raccoon family, when spotted in the wild, included in museum collections or even displayed in zoos. During the 1960s, one captured “olingo” confounded zookeepers when it refused to breed or mingle with its peers. The mystery began to unravel a decade ago, when Kristofer M. Helgen, a mammal expert from the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, examined olongo specimens in the collections of the Field Museum of Chicago. He noticed that a number of the preserved specimens appeared quite different from the known species of olingo, with smaller skulls and pelts of a reddish-brown color (the olingo has short, brownish-gray fur).
Helgen, who had previously identified two new species of hog badger, was certain he had discovered a new species, and began working to confirm it. In addition to a thorough investigation and DNA testing, he turned to zoologist Roland Kays of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, the world’s top expert on olingos, to help track down an actual olinguito in its natural habitat. In 2006, the researchers set off with Ecuadorian zoologist Miguel Pinto on a weeks-long field expedition to the Andes Mountains in Ecuador. They confirmed the existence of four distinct subspecies of olinguito living among the misty treetops of the cloud forest, at elevations of some 5,000-9,000 feet above sea level.
The researchers used their findings to map out predictions for the geographic distribution of the animal, which they believe may also be found elsewhere in Central and South America. Adding the Spanish diminutive suffix “ito” to indicate its smaller size, they named the species “olinguito.” Its scientific name is Bassaricyon neblina, from the Spanish word for mist, and it belongs to the taxonomic order Carnivora, which includes civets, hyena and bears, along with cats and dogs. The olinguito’s primary food source is not meat, however: It mostly eats tree fruit, such as figs, and occasionally eats insects. The smallest member of the raccoon family, it weighs in at only two pounds and measures some 14 inches long, compared to 16 inches and 2.4 pounds for other known olingo species.
In contrast to other newly identified species, many of which have often been known to indigenous peoples for centuries, the olinguito seems to have escaped notice until now. Helgen found no one among the local population who knew anything about the olinguito, and no native names exist. While scientists discover new species all the time, most of them tend to be insects or other invertebrates, only a fraction of which have been catalogued. The discovery of a new mammal belonging to the carnivore order is much more unusual. The last new carnivorous mammal, a mongoose-like creature native to Madagascar, was discovered in 2010, while the most recent such find in the Western Hemisphere was the Colombian weasel, in 1978.
Helgen, Kays and their colleagues announced their discovery of the olinguito in a news conference at the Smithsonian this week; they also published their complete findings online in the journal ZooKeys. They estimate that the olinguito population numbers in the tens of thousands, which means it’s not an endangered species, or at least not yet. More than 40 percent of its potential habitat range has been converted to agricultural or urban areas, however, and the researchers hope their work with the olinguito will help reverse this process by bringing attention to the conservation of such a unique habitat. According to Kays, the Andean cloud forest is “a magical place” and “a crucible of evolution,” and its isolation has promoted a vast diversification of animals, many of which may not yet have been identified.