It looks like a mix between a cat and a teddy bear, lives in the high cloud forest of the Andes mountains and is the first new carnivore found in the Western Hemisphere in 35 years.
Smithsonian Institution scientists in Washington today called the olinguito a “major discovery” that was overlooked for decades despite a specimen sitting in the cabinets of a Chicago museum. Weighing about 2 pounds (0.91 kilograms), the olinguito is part of a family of animals related to raccoons.
“The olinguito shows us that the world is not yet completely explored, its most basic secrets not yet revealed,” Kristofer Helgen, the curator of mammals at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History who led the expedition to track down the animal, said in a statement. “If new carnivores can still be found, what other surprises await us?”
While discoveries of new plants or insects are relatively common, finding new mammals is less likely and identifying new carnivores is “incredibly rare” in this century, said the researchers. In 2010, scientists in Madagascar discovered the Durrell’s vontsira, another small carnivore.
“Carnivore species aren’t described very often,” Robert Voss, a curator in the division of mammalogy at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, said in a telephone interview. “Most of the new discoveries are of very small species, they’re either shrews or rodents or bats.”
There have been olinguito samples in the possession of researchers for 100 years. Those specimens though, had never been identified as a separate species until this year.
The discovery process started from a 10-year-long study of existing olingo species, which are carnivores that live in trees and are closely related to the new animal. While looking at museum specimens, researchers found a group that had different skulls and teeth, and a thicker coat. The specimens had also been found above 5,000 feet in the western slopes of the Andes mountains of South America.
“The data from the old specimens gave us an idea of where to look, but it still seemed like a shot in the dark,” Roland Kays, director of the Biodiversity and Earth Observation Lab at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences said in the statement.
Identifying a new species that already had samples collected is increasingly common, especially with genetic tools now available to help run tests. “At least half of the new species of mammals that are being described there were specimens in museum collections,” said Voss. “It speaks to the importance of museums as archives of the world’s biodiversity.”
The olinguito’s scientific name is Bassaricyon neblina and lives in the high-altitude jungles in Ecuador and Colombia, which are home to a wide variety of species. Its range may extend into Peru and Venezuela, according to the researchers.
Places like the Andean cloud forests are likely spots to find new species because of their isolation, Voss said.
“There are regions that have been isolated from other regions a long time, so they develop their own peculiar flora and fauna,” he said. “The classic example of that is Madagascar. But there are islands within continents, isolated by physical barriers, or also ecological barriers.”
In the Andes, the cloud forests have cool temperatures at high altitude, surrounded by hot, wet jungle below. Animals there can be cut off by those drastically different climates and left to gradually evolve into distinct species.
“The other thing about the Andean cloud forest is that they’re still very poorly explored,” Voss said. “They’re on steep slopes, very dense, they’re difficult places to work.”
A video clip from a researcher in Ecuador suggested that there were still living olinguitos. Helgen and Kays were able to find the animal and study its behavior during a three-week expedition to South America. While the olinguito is a carnivore, it eats mostly fruit, lives in the trees, and is most active at night.
“This is a beautiful animal, but we know so little about it,” Helgen said. “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?”