New Mammal Discovered: Olinguito, A Teddy-Bear-Like Creature, Is First Carnivore Found In Western Hemisphere In 35 Years

By Josh Lieberman on August 15, 2013 4:33 PM EDT

olinguito
The olinguito is the first new carnivore discovered in the Western hemisphere in 35 years. (Photo: Reuters)

Smithsonian scientists announced today the rare discovery of a mammal called the olinguito, a reddish fur-ball of a raccoon that marks the first new carnivore found in the Western Hemisphere in 35 years.  

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The nocturnal olinguito lives in the trees of the Andes Mountains of Ecuador and Colombia, hopping around in treetops and dining on figs, plant nectar and insects. The reason the olinguito has gone undiscovered for so long doesn't have to do with it hiding up in the Andean treetops. Rather, scientists had always thought the olinguito was actually an olingo, a sort-of-similar-looking creature in the raccoon family.

But all this time, the new mammal has been hiding in plain sight: in the Andes, in museum collections and even in zoos, where zookeepers have always been puzzled that certain "olingos" (which were actually olinguitos) refused to breed with real olingos.

"Its DNA had even been sequenced, but no one had connected the pieces and looked close enough to realize, basically, the significance of this remarkable and this beautiful animal," said Kristofer Helgen, curator of mammals at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.

It was Helgen who first realized that the olinguito might not be the same thing as the olingo, but a new mammal entirely. Helgen had his epiphany at the Field Museum in Chicago, Ill., while going over bones and animal skins in storage.

"It stopped me in my tracks," Helgen told BBC News. "The skins were a rich red color and when I looked at the skulls I didn't recognize the anatomy. It was different to any similar animal I'd seen, and right away I thought it could be a species new to science."

Helgren noticed that the teeth and skull of the "olingo" specimen at the Field Museum was much smaller than the genuine article. The ears of the specimen were more prominent than a real olingo's as well.

Rather than publish his findings right away, Helgren decided to take a trip to the Andes to see whether he could spot an olinguito in the wild. That turned out to be fairly easy.

"When we went to the field we found it in the very first night," said Roland Kays of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and a co-author on a ZooKeys study describing the new mammal discovery. "It was almost like it was waiting for us."

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