The Smithsonian announced that they have discovered that the mammal, which they had previously mistaken for an olingo, is actually a distinct species. The olinguito belongs to the grouping of large creatures that include dogs, cats and bears. (AP Photo/Smithsonian Institution, Mark Gurney)
Amid the misty treetops and giant tomato-sized figs in the Andean cloud forests, the researchers spotted the animal the first night.
“It sort of bounced around the trees almost like a monkey,” zoologist Roland Kays said, “doing its thing, eating the figs.”
The small, bushy-tailed, rust-colored furry mammal they named the olinguito was a rare find — the first new carnivore species found in the Western Hemisphere in 35 years.
Its discovery is a story that goes back a decade ago to efforts by zoologist Kristofer Helgen to count the number of species of the olingo, a member of the raccoon family. At the Field Museum of Chicago, what he found in a drawer stopped him dead in his tracks.
The orange pelts he saw were nothing like the skins of the larger, brown olingos. Searching further, the Smithsonian scientist found the skull was also different — shorter snout, dissimilar teeth.
“I knew at that point it was a new species, but I also knew I needed to be sure,” Helgen said. For years, he toiled away to confirm that the olinguito was a new species with thorough investigation and DNA testing.
Finally, he called upon Kays, the world’s resident olingo expert, to help him track down an olinguito in its natural habitat. The researchers, along with an Ecuadorian zoologist , set off on an expedition to the Andes in 2006.
Among the treetops, the team confirmed the existence of four distinct subspecies of olinguito. With its findings, the team in the following years reorganized the raccoon family tree using DNA sequencing and peered into every nook and cranny of their bones. Then, last week, they finally announce their findings last week.
The name: “Olinguito” is Spanish for “little, adorable olingo,” he said at a Smithsonian Institution news conference announcing the discovery. The researchers also published their findings online in the journal ZooKeys.
The discovery corrects a long-running case of mistaken identity. For decades, the animals had been observed in the wild, tucked away in museum collections, and even exhibited at zoos — including the National Zoo.
“In some ways, this animal was hiding in plain sight,” said Kays. Its pelts and bones were found stashed away in dusty museum drawers, either mislabeled or not labeled at all.
One captured olinguito puzzled zookeepers because it refused to breed or mingle with other olingos.
“They thought it was just a fussy olingo, but turns out it was completely the wrong species,” Helgen said.
The little guy: Weighing only two pounds — about as much as a guinea pig — the creature takes the title of smallest member of the raccoon family. It dines on fruits such as figs but also enjoys insects and plant nectar. Although the new animal is in the taxonomic Order Carnivora — a group of mammals that include cats and dogs — it is not carnivorous because it does not primarily eat meat.
Although olinguitos have been spotted in the cloud forests of the northern Andes — in rain forests at high elevations — scientists speculate that the animals also might live elsewhere in Central and South America.
Zoologist DeeAnn Reeder, of Bucknell University in central Pennsylvania finds the olinguito to be an “extraordinarily beautiful animal” and says that to describe a new carnivore in the 21st century is “special and amazing.”
“This gets people excited about science and museum work, and about the things you can discover,” she said.
Known before? Other discoveries often have been known to indigenous peoples for hundreds if not thousands of years, but not the olinguito. Helgen could find no one who knew anything about the animal, and no native names exist, even though its population is estimated to be in the tens of thousands.
The number also puts the little creature safely out of the endangered zone — for now. More than 40 percent of its historic habitat has been converted to agriculture or urban areas, the study has found.
“The cloud forest is really a magical place with figs and clouds and cool vegetation,” Kays said. He calls it as “a real crucible of evolution” whose isolation has promoted a vast diversification of animals.
Reported by MEERI KIM of The Washington Post.
Although it’s classified among the carnivores in the scientific sense, the olinguito mostly eats figs. (AP Photo/Smithsonian Institution, Mark Gurney)