15 Aug 2013

Meet the olinguito – the world’s newest mammal

Scientists in America discover a new animal living in the cloud forests of Colombia and Ecuador – the first new species of carnivore mammal to be identified for 35 years.

Olinguito (Smithsonian)

Scientists at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington called the olinguito a “major discovery” that was overlooked for decades despite a specimen sitting in the cabinets of a Chicago museum.

Weighing about two pounds, 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.

Olinguito (Smithsonian)

Never identified before

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.

The olinguito’s scientific name is Bassaricyon neblina and lives in the high-altitude jungles in Ecuador and Columbia, which are home to a wide variety of species. Its range may extend into Peru and Venezuela, according to the researchers.

Carnivore that eats mostly fruit

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 behaviour? What do we need to do to ensure its conservation?”