A Smithsonian researcher announced at a press conference at the Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. that he had discovered a new mammal species that is a relative of the raccoon: the olinguito (oh-lin-GHEE-toe).
The press release, which describes the 2-pound animal's appearance as "a cross between a house cat and a teddy bear," says the species lives in the cloud forests of Ecuador and Colombia in South America. A member of the Procyonidae family, the olinguito is a very close relative of the olingo, a bushy-tailed mammal typically found in the forests of Central America. Close relatives also include raccoons, coatis and kinkajous. The Smithsonian admitted that the newly discovered animal had once been housed at its own National Zoo when it was misclassified as a similar animal, the Associated Press reported. A DNA review of 95 percent the world's olingo species revealed that some were actually olinguitos.
Kristofer Helgen, lead researcher on the discovery and curator of mammals at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, said at the press conference that it was likely the animal was a carnivore, since its teeth structure suggested that it ate meat. In fact, Helgen said it was closer inspection of the animal's skull and teeth structure that first tipped him off to the fact that he may have discovered a new species. This new animal was also smaller on average and had a denser coat than an olingo.
Helgen wondered if the animal might exist in the wild or if it had already been wiped out by deforestation and human interference. A colleague, Miguel Pinto, a zoologist in Ecuador, managed to capture a few seconds of grainy video featuring the olinguito. Helgen then set out on a three-week expedition with Director of the Biodiversity and Earth Observation Lab at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences Roland Kays to the forests of Ecuador to see the animal with their own eyes. According to the press release, on the expedition, "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."
“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," Helgen said in the Smithsonian's press release.
However, the olinguito may be already be a threatened species. Some 42 percent of the species' native habitat, the cloud forests, has been torn down and converted to agricultural fields or city development.
“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 in the release. “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.”