Photo: Mark Gurney --- New carniverous mammal - the Olinguito
Observed in the wild, tucked away in museum collections, and even exhibited in zoos, there is one mysterious creature that has been a victim of mistaken identity for more than 100 years. A team of scientists ― including Roland Kays, of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and a professor at North Carolina State University ― however, uncovered overlooked museum specimens of this remarkable animal. Their investigation eventually took them on a journey from museum cabinets in Chicago to cloud forests in South America to genetics labs in Washington, D.C. The result: the olinguito (Bassaricyon neblina) the first carnivore species to be discovered in the Western Hemisphere in 35 years. The team’s discovery is published in the Aug. 15 issue of the journal ZooKeys.
The olinguito (oh-lin-GHEE-toe) looks like a cross between a house cat and a teddy bear. It is actually the latest scientifically documented member of the family Procyonidae, which it shares with raccoons, coatis, kinkajous and olingos. (Olinguito means “little olingo.”) The 2-pound olinguito, with its large eyes and woolly orange-brown fur, is native to the cloud forests of Colombia and Ecuador, as its scientific name, “neblina” (Spanish for “fog”), hints. In addition to being the latest described member of its family, another distinction the olinguito holds is that it is the newest species in the order Carnivora ― an incredibly rare discovery in the 21st century.
“The discovery of the olinguito shows us that the world is not yet completely explored, its most basic secrets not yet revealed,” said Kristofer Helgen, curator of mammals at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and leader of the team reporting the new discovery. “If new carnivores can still be found, what other surprises await us? So many of the world’s species are not yet known to science. Documenting them is the first step toward understanding the full richness and diversity of life on Earth.”
“The cloud forests of the Andes are a world unto themselves, filled with many species found nowhere else, many of them threatened or endangered,” Helgen said. “We hope that the olinguito can serve as an ambassador species for the cloud forests of Ecuador and Colombia, to bring the world’s attention to these critical habitats.”
Watch Rob Nelson for Untamed Science discuss the new mammal.