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Olinguitos weigh about two pounds and are skilled jumpers, able to leap from tree to tree. (Mark Gurney / AP Images)

A New Species Discovered—or Not?

Hidden in plain sight, the olinguito is the Western Hemisphere's first new carnivore species in decades

By Jennifer Marino Walters | August 22 , 2013
<p> PHOTO: Falsely identified specimens had been lying around the Smithsonian Museum for years. (Charles Dharapak / AP Images) </p><p> MAP: The olinguitos were rediscovered on the western side of the Andes Mountains. (Jim McMahon) </p>

PHOTO: Falsely identified specimens had been lying around the Smithsonian Museum for years. (Charles Dharapak / AP Images)

MAP: The olinguitos were rediscovered on the western side of the Andes Mountains. (Jim McMahon)

For more than 100 years, an adorable animal species has been hiding right under our noses. This newly identified species—a tiny, furry creature that looks like a cross between a cat and a teddy bear—had already been observed in the wild and even exhibited in three U.S. zoos. Specimens of the species had also been placed in museums. But biologists had categorized it as the wrong species!

Scientists had always believed that the creature was an olingo (a long-tailed member of the raccoon family). But on August 15, after a decade-long study at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, researchers made a big announcement: The animal is actually a new species! The mammal, called the olinguito (pronounced oh-lin-GHEE-toh), is the first carnivore species to be discovered in the Western Hemisphere in 35 years.

“The discovery of the olinguito shows us that the world is not yet completely explored,” says Kristofer Helgen, a Smithsonian scientist. “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.”

A BIG DISCOVERY

Ten years ago, Helgen and his team began a detailed study of nearly all of the olingo specimens in museums around the world. They noticed that some of the specimens had teeth and skulls that were smaller and shaped differently than those of other olingos. The pelts (furry skins) showed that these specimens also had smaller bodies with longer, denser coats. Notes revealed that the animals had been collected in the northern Andes Mountains in South America at 5,000 to 9,000 feet above sea level—much higher than the olingo’s known range.

In 2006, Helgen and his team met with other scientists in Ecuador to see if olinguitos still exist in the wild. They found a live olinguito on their very first night on the western side of the Andes. DNA analysis later proved that the animal is a separate species from the olingo.

ABOUT THE OLINGUITO

The olinguito, the smallest member of the raccoon family, has so far been found only in the fog-covered cloud forests of Ecuador and Colombia. Helgen believes they may also live in similar habitats in other South American countries. Olinguitos tend to stay in trees and are mostly nocturnal (awake during the night, asleep during the day), which may be how they’ve managed to stay unnoticed for so long.

These long-tailed mammals weigh about two pounds and are a little smaller than house cats. They eat mainly fruit, insects, and nectar, and occasionally birds, mice, and other small animals. Olinguitos are skilled jumpers, able to leap from tree to tree.

Although olinguitos are not endangered, their habitat is threatened by humans. About 42 percent of it has already been converted to farms or urban areas.

Helgen and his team are planning future research trips to learn more about the olinguito.

“Proving that a species exists . . . is where everything starts,” Helgen said in a statement. “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?”

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