For the first time in 35 years, scientists have found a new carnivorous mammal in the Americas -- and it's sort of cute and cuddly looking, too.
The olinguito (oh-lin-GHEE-toe), which Smithsonian scientists describe as a "mix of house cat and a teddy bear," isn't really either of the two, but instead part of the family Procyonidae, which includes raccoons, olingos, and other small animals with long tails. The Smithsonian team published the discovery in the August 15 edition of the scientific journal ZooKeys.
A native of the high-elevation forests in Colombia and Ecuador, the orange-brown furred olinguito commonly weighs around two pounds, measures 14 inches long, moves among trees at nighttime, and noshes on fruit.
"The cloud forests of the Andes are a world unto themselves, filled with many species found nowhere else, many of them threatened or endangered," said Kristofer Helgen, a curator at the National Museum of Natural History and the leader of the team involved with the discovery, in a press release. "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."
The olinguito is officially known as the Bassaricyon neblina, with neblina being the Spanish word for "fog."
A case of mistaken identity
The olinguito has been in plain view of scientists all along (and even toured some U.S. zoos decades ago), but for over a century, it was commonly misidentified as an olingo.
The Smithsonian team originally planned to fully classify the olingo species and its many variants, but everything changed after an accidental find at a Chicago museum.
While looking at olingo specimens placed in storage cabinets at the museum, Helgen came across the curious olinguito. It didn't take long for Helgen and a team of Smithsonian scientists to realize the specimen -- with its dense red fur, small skull, and different teeth -- was something quite different.
The discovery kicked off a decade's worth of research into the matter, leading the group into various museums to look at specimens and field expeditions in the western Andes. Developments came quickly after zoologist Miguel Pinto captured grainy video of the olinguito, however. After seeing the footage, Helgen and Roland Kays, a director at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, set off on a three-week expedition that yielded numerous direct olinguito observations and a treasure trove of information about the creature.
"This is the first step," Helgen said. "Proving that a species exists and giving it a name is where everything starts. This is a beautiful animal, but we know so little about it. How many countries does it live in? What else can we learn about its behavior? What do we need to do to ensure its conservation?"
Keeping the olinguito around for the next century may likely be difficult, as the Smithsonian team estimates that 42 percent of its habitat has vanished due to urban expansion and aggressive farming.
"The discovery of the olinguito shows us that the world is not yet completely explored, its most basic secrets not yet revealed," said Helgen. "If new carnivores can still be found, what other surprises await us?"
Correction, 12:30 p.m. PT: This story was updated to correct the spelling of Colombia.