A team of Smithsonian scientists have discovered a new species of animal that has suffered from a case of mistaken identity for over 100 years. The new species -- the olinguito (Bassaricyon neblina) -- is the first carnivorous species to be discovered in the American continents in 35 years.
The furry olinguito (oh-lin-GHEE-toe) is part of the same scientific family as other furry animals including raccoons, coatis, kinkajous and olingos. The animal has trademark large eyes, orange-brown fur, looks like a cross between a teddy bear and a cat, and is native to the forests of Colombia and Ecuador.
"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 and leader of the team reporting the new discovery, in a statement. "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."
If you think discovering this species was sudden, think again! This discovery took a decade of DNA testing and reviewing historic field data. In fact, the scientists accidentally stumbled upon this species while trying to identify how many olingo species could be recognized. In that endeavour, they uncovered a brand new species: the olinguito.
Often mistaken to be the olingo, the olinguito has smaller and different shaped teeth and skull from the olingo. The species, in general, is smaller and has a denser coat. They are found in the northern Andes Mountains at 5,000 to 9,000 feet above sea level -- an elevation that is much higher than where the olingo resides. After determining that the olinguito is a different species, Helgen and his team decided to determine if the species still exists.
They collaborated with Roland Kays, director of the Biodiversity and Earth Observation Lab at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, for a field expedition. Fortunately for them, a camcorder video from their colleague Miguel Pinto, a zoologist in Ecuador, provided grainy footage that proved the olinguito still existed. This led to a three-week expedition to find the animal in the western slopes of the Andes.
"The data from the old specimens gave us an idea of where to look, but it still seemed like a shot in the dark," Kays said. "But 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."
The team documented everything during their expedition to learn more about the new species. Ultimately, they learned that the animal was mostly active at night, ate a lot of fruit, rarely comes out of trees and has children one baby at a time. The scientists also learned that 42 percent of the natural olinguito habitat has been urbanized or converted to agriculture, which means their natural environment is endangered.
"The cloud forests of the Andes are a world unto themselves, filled with many species found nowhere else, many of them threatened or endangered," Helgen said. "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."
"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?"