Background: Smallest member of raccoon family and with thick, woolly orange or reddish brown fur.
Size: Head and body length of 14 inches, plus 13- to 17-inch tail. Adults weigh 2 pounds.
Diet: Mostly fruit, but also insects and nectar.
Behavior: Solitary, mostly nocturnal and adept at leaping from tree to tree.
Range: Cloud forests of Ecuador and Colombia at elevations of 5,000 to 9,000 feet in northern Andes Mountains.
Smithsonian Institution scientists today reported that they identified the Western Hemisphere’s first new carnivorous mammal in 35 years.
Oddly enough, the finding was not a complete surprise because the animal, the olinguito, has been displayed in museums and zoos worldwide for more than a century and misidentified as a close relative, the olingo.
The olinguito’s looks are described as a cross between a house cat and a teddy bear. The 2-pound animal goes by the scientific name Bassaricyon neblina and lives in the cloud forests of Colombia and Ecuador. It is a member of the Procyonidae family, which includes raccoons, coatis, kinkajous and olingos.
"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. "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.”
Helgen led the team that reported the finding, which is published in the Aug. 15 issue of the journal ZooKeys.
The confirmation of a new species in the order Carnivora took more than 10 years of research and began as a comprehensive study of olingos.
The first clues that something was amiss were the olinguito’s teeth and skull, which are smaller and shaped differently than those of olingos, and its longer and denser coat.
Field records revealed that the animal later identified as the olinguito (oh-lin-GHEE-toe) lived in the northern Andes Mountains at 5,000 to 9,000 feet elevation, which is higher than where olingos are typically found.
DNA testing and a three-week field expedition to South America brought the scientists the necessary proof.
"The data from the old specimens gave us an idea of where to look, but it still seemed like a shot in the dark,” said Roland Kays, who helped organize the field expedition.
"These Andean forests are so amazing that even if we didn’t find the animal we were looking for, I knew our team would discover something cool along the way,” said Kays, director of the Biodiversity and Earth Observation Lab at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.
Working with Ecuadorean zoologist Miguel Pinto, Helgen and Kays found olinguitos living in a forest on the western slopes of the Andes. The team documented the animal’s characteristics and habitat, learning that the olinguito is active at night, eats mostly fruit, rarely leaves the protection of trees and produces one offspring at a time.
Suspicions that the olinguito was mislabeled arose as early as 1920, when a New York zoologist thought a museum specimen didn’t quite fit in. The scientist never published his discovery.
Similar cloud forest habitat exists in Peru and Venezuela, leading Helgen to suggest the olinguito may be found there, too.
"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?”