Biologists from the United States, Ecuador and Panama have described a new species of carnivore from the cloud forests of Ecuador and Colombia, and named it the Olinguito (Bassaricyon neblina).
The animal belongs the family Procyonidae, which it shares with raccoons, coatis, kinkajous and olingos. It is the first carnivore species discovered in the Western Hemisphere in more than three decades.
The Olinguito, the smallest member of the raccoon family, looks like a cross between a house cat and a teddy bear. Its head and body length is 14 inches long (35.5 cm), plus a tail 13-17 inches in length (33.5-42.5 cm), and it weighs about 2 pounds (0.9 kg). It has large eyes and thick, woolly orange-brown fur.
“The discovery of the Olinguito shows us that the world is not yet completely explored, its most basic secrets not yet revealed,” said Dr Kristofer Helgen from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, who is a lead author of a paper describing the new mammal in the open-access journal ZooKeys.
Discovering a new species of carnivore, however, does not happen overnight. This one took about ten years, and was not the original goal of Dr Helgen’s team – completing the first comprehensive study of olingos, several species of tree-living carnivores in the genus Bassaricyon, was.
Dr Helgen with colleagues wanted to understand how many olingo species should be recognized and how these species are distributed. Unexpectedly, their close examination of more than 95 percent of the world’s olingo specimens in museums, along with DNA testing and the review of historic field data, revealed existence of a previously undescribed species.
The first clue came to the biologists from the Olinguito’s teeth and skull, which were smaller and differently shaped than those of olingos.
Examining museum skins revealed that this new species was also smaller overall with a longer and denser coat; field records showed that it occurred in a unique area of the northern Andes Mountains at 5,000 to 9,000 feet above sea level – elevations much higher than the known species of olingo.
This information, however, was coming from overlooked Olinguito specimens collected in the early 20th century. The question Helgen and his team wanted to answer next was: does the Olinguito still exist in the wild?
“The data from the old specimens gave us an idea of where to look, but it still seemed like a shot in the dark. 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,” said co-author Dr Roland Kays of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.
The biologists found Olinguito in a forest on the western slopes of the Andes, and spent their days documenting what they could about the animal – its characteristics and its forest home. Because the Olinguito was new to science, it was imperative for the scientists to record every aspect of the animal.
They learned that the Olinguito is mostly active at night, is mainly a fruit eater, rarely comes out of the trees and has one baby at a time.
They also made special note of the Olinguito’s cloud forest Andean habitat, which is under heavy pressure of human development. They estimated that 42 percent of historic Olinguito habitat has already been converted to agriculture or urban areas.
“The cloud forests of the Andes are a world unto themselves, filled with many species found nowhere else, many of them threatened or endangered. 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,” Dr Helgen said.
While the Olinguito is new to science, it is not a stranger to people. People have been living in or near the Olinguito’s cloud forest world for thousands of years. And while misidentified, specimens have been in museums for more than a century, and at least one Olinguito from Colombia was exhibited in several zoos in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s.
Bibliographic information: Helgen KM et al. 2013. Taxonomic revision of the olingos (Bassaricyon), with description of a new species, the Olinguito. ZooKeys 324: 1–83; doi: 10.3897/zookeys.324.5827