Smithsonian scientists discover new carnivore: the olinguito

Observed in the wild, tucked away in museum collections, and even exhibited in zoos around the world―there is one mysterious creature that has been a victim of mistaken identity for more than 100 years. A team of Smithsonian scientists, however, uncovered overlooked museum specimens of this remarkable animal, which took them on a journey from museum cabinets in Chicago to cloud forests in South America to genetics labs in Washington, D.C. The result: the olinguito (Bassaricyon neblina)―the first carnivore species to be discovered in the American continents in 35 years. The team’s discovery is published in the Aug. 15 issue of the journal ZooKeys.

Olinguito ("Bassaricyon neblina"). A team, led by Smithsonian scientist Kristofer Helgen, spent 10 years examining hundreds of museum specimens and tracking animals in the wild in the cloud forests of Ecuador. The result―the newest species of mammal known to science, the olinguito ("Bassaricyon neblina") (Photo by Mark Gurney)

A team, led by Smithsonian scientist Kristofer Helgen, spent 10 years examining hundreds of museum specimens and tracking animals in the wild in the cloud forests of Ecuador. The result―the newest species of mammal known to science, the olinguito (Bassaricyon neblina) (Photo by Mark Gurney)

The olinguito (oh-lin-GHEE-toe) looks like a cross between a house cat and a teddy bear. It is actually the latest scientifically documented member of the family Procyonidae, which it shares with raccoons, coatis, kinkajous and olingos. The 2-pound olinguito, with its large eyes and woolly orange-brown fur, is native to the cloud forests of Colombia and Ecuador, as its scientific name, “neblina” (Spanish for “fog”), hints. In addition to being the latest described member of its family, another distinction the olinguito holds is that it is the newest species in the order Carnivora―an incredibly rare discovery in the 21st century.

“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. “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.”

The olinguito ("Bassaricyon neblina") came close to being discovered several times during the past century and was even exhibited in zoos. For example, this female olinguito lived in various zoos in the U.S. decades ago. The problem was a case of mistaken identity, which was solved with a decade of detective work by Smithsonian scientist Kristofer Helgen and his team, resulting in the description of a new species. (Photo by I. Poglayen-Neuwall)

The olinguito (Bassaricyon neblina) came close to being discovered several times during the past century and was even exhibited in zoos. For example, this female olinguito lived in various zoos in the U.S. decades ago. The problem was a case of mistaken identity, which was solved with a decade of detective work by Smithsonian scientist Kristofer Helgen and his team, resulting in the description of a new species. (Photo by I. Poglayen-Neuwall)

Discovering a new species of carnivore, however, does not happen overnight. This one took a decade, and was not the project’s original goal―completing the first comprehensive study of olingos, several species of tree-living carnivores in the genus Bassaricyon, was. Helgen’s team wanted to understand how many olingo species should be recognized and how these species are distributed―issues that had long been unclear to scientists. Unexpectedly, the team’s 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 the olinguito, a  previously undescribed species.

The first clue came to Helgen 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?

To answer that question, Helgen called on Roland Kays, director of the Biodiversity and Earth Observation Lab at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, to help organize a field expedition.

The olinguito is so far known only from cloud forest habitats in Colombia and Ecuador, but future investigations might show that it occurs in similar habitats in other South American countries.

The olinguito is so far known only from cloud forest habitats in Colombia and Ecuador, but future investigations might show that it occurs in similar habitats in other South American countries.

“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 had a lucky break that started with a camcorder video. With confirmation of the olinguito’s existence via a few seconds of grainy video shot by their colleague Miguel Pinto, a zoologist in Ecuador, Helgen and Kays set off on a three-week expedition to find the animal themselves. Working with Pinto, they found olinguitos 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.

In addition to body features and behavior, the team made special note of the olinguito’s cloud forest Andean habitat, which is under heavy pressure of human development. The team estimated that 42 percent of historic olinguito habitat has already been converted to agriculture or urban areas.

1 photo of Olinguito

The olinguito mainly eats fruit, but may also eat some insects and nectar. (Photo by Mark Gurney)

“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.”

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 100 years, and at least one olinguito from Colombia was exhibited in several zoos in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s. There were even several occasions during the past century when the olinguito came close to being discovered but was not. In 1920, a zoologist in New York thought an olinguito museum specimen was so unusual that it might be a new species, but he never followed through in publishing the discovery.

Giving the olinguito its scientific name is just the beginning. “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?” Helgen is already planning his next mission into the clouds.

****OLINGUITO FACTS****

The olinguito is the smallest member of the raccoon family. It has thick, woolly fur that is denser and more colorful (orange or reddish brown) than its closest relatives, the olingos. Its head and body length is 14 inches long (355 mm), plus a tail 13-17 inches in length (335-425 mm), and it weighs 2 pounds (900 grams). Males and females are similar in size.

DIET:     The olinguito mainly eats fruit, but may also eat some insects and nectar.

BEHAVIOR:     These solitary animals live in trees and are mostly nocturnal. It is an adept jumper that can leap from tree to tree in the forest canopy. Mothers raise a single baby at a time.

HABITAT:     The olinguito is found only in cloud forests of the northern Andes Mountains

RANGE:     Ecuador and Colombia, at high elevations  (5,000 to 9,000 feet above sea level).

 

 

 

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  • Samn

    It bothers me that the article states that a new species was “discovered.” This little guy has been around for a while; long enough to be included in zoo exhibits. It may be better to say that the ancestry of this carnivore had now been better identified, so as to lead to a better taxonomic classification. Just a thought.

    • Jenny

      Agreed. I think “identified” is more accurate than “discovered”.

    • Anonymous

      At least they didn’t say it was invented…

    • Liz

      It bothers me that anyone could have a reactiOn to this article other than: AWWWWWWWW A MIX BETWEEN A HOUSE CAT AND A TEDDY BEAR!!!!! MAY I KISS IT?

    • Freida Alass

      They should just update the name of the order. Carnivora is a poor choice. The other order names describe their groups better.

      • Curly Locks

        Can you give us some examples of the other Orders and their common names?

    • Claire

      I was really annoyed that it wasn’t the zookeepers that noticed that this was a different animal. I would be interested in knowing the differences between the Olingos and the Olinguitos. How did it get passed so many for so long? And was it really THAT different from the behaviors of the Olingos? I think it is absurd that they are saying discovered, as if it is a great thing, when they should be saying we screwed up and mis-categorized an animal. I find it similarly annoying that if a word is used/ pronounced incorrectly for a long enough period, the definition of the word changes :/

  • Liz

    They keep calling it a carnivore. I do not think they know what that word means.

    • J.C.

      There are more then one meanings to the word carnivore. It can be used as a descriptive term to describe organisms that eat meat. However, it can also be use as a taxonomic term to designate something belongs to the group Carnivora (the group that includes dogs, cats, bears, raccoons, weasels, and other related animals). The olinguito is a carnivore in the second sense.

      It can, admittedly be be quite confusing. There are numerous carnivores (in the sense of meat eating animals) that are not part of the group Carnivora (think of all the lizards, snakes, and birds of prey that aren’t even mammals!). There are also some carnivores (in the sense of animals belonging to Carnivora) that don’t eat meet (the giant Panda would be another famous example).

      Sometimes I think Taxonomic names are chosen just to be obtuse. . . .

      • Manduh

        Thanks for clarifying, I was confused until now.

    • Freida Alass

      It’s been driving me nuts since I was a kid, bottom line it’s a poor name choice for that order. They could come up with something better and less confusing. The other orders have better names than this one. I’m surprised the classification system hasn’t been updated after all these years.

  • stephanie

    It is stinking cute even though the article may be a flawed! Minus the claws though…

  • RUFUS BUTTERBEAN

    wonder how long it will take until some dipshit trys to breed it with a dog??

  • trickygoose

    Looks like an Asian palm civet, wonder if their ancestry is similar? Hopefully it doesn’t eat coffee beans…the Indonesians wouldn’t like the competition to their luwak coffee ;)

    • http://www.crowmeris.com/ CrowMeris

      This baby is a member of the Procyonid family; the coffee-bean muncher belongs with the Viverrids – so the beans are safe!

  • Sue in Montana

    Great career-builder for the scientist. Too bad the animals themselves will be exterminated as they are taken for fur, mothers are killed so their babies can be exported as pets, and their habitat is destroyed for development. They were hiding for a reason.

  • Georgina

    Photogenic! Wonderful identification.

  • John

    Blame Carl Linnaeus (23 May[note 1] 1707 – 10 January 1778), he’s the one that came up with the binomial nomenclature. and is the father of taxonomy. Nobody said it was easy but it STILL should be taught at least at the 6th grade level.

  • scotty

    The trouble with tribbles is…

  • Heljo Valter

    The olinguito is founded only so big time now! Ou! Interesting to see and read too!

  • Chris S

    Correct me if I’m wrong – the article title states that the Olinguito is a new species of carnivore. The article then goes on to say the creature eats mainly fruit and occasionally insects.

    Would that not make it an omnivore since a carnivore eats meat exclusively?

    Whilst it’s interesting that this creature can now be reclassified, can we be sure that other statements made in this article are accurate?

    • Tame’owL

      No carnivore eats meat exclusively.

      • Mac

        Some carnivores do eat meat exclusively, obligate carnivores. Facultative carnivores eat and can digest plant matter.

        • Tame’owL

          While they may consume small amounts of plant material, they lack the
          physiology required for the efficient digestion of vegetable matter and,
          in fact, some carnivorous mammals eat vegetation specifically as an
          emetic.

    • Laura E. McRae

      Hi Chris,

      You are correct that an animal that eats both plant-based and animal-based foods would be considered an omnivore. However, I think you may be a little confused by how the terms “carnivore” and “Carnivora” (note the “a” on the end instead of an “e”) are different.

      The generic term “carnivore” denotes any animal that eats other animals, primarily in the form of prey. Therefore, snakes, alligators, some types of lizards, hawks, owls, cats, etc. are all carnivores. Similar terms are herbivores (plant-eaters), omnivores (plant and meat eaters), insectivores (insect eaters), piscivores (fish eaters), granivores (grain eaters), etc.

      “Carnivora”, on the other hand, is a scientific term (or taxonomic classification) for a group of closely related animals that all share a common ancestor in their evolutionary past. All species assigned to the Order Carnivora are genetically related, have similar morphology (biological traits), and are more closely related to each other than they are to members of other taxonomic Orders, such as Rodentia (rodents) or Primates.

      While most members of the Order Carnivora are meat-eaters – hence the name, other species in this order have evolved away from exclusive carnivory. For example, many bear species are omnivores, but the panda (bear) is completely herbivorous. Procyonids (raccoon-like species) are generally omnivores with some species consuming vast quantities of fruit, like olinguitos.

      So, the olinguito species is a member of the Order Carnivora because it is closely related genetically to other species in that order. However, it has evolved away from carnivory toward a more frugivorous (fruit-eating) “life-style”.

      • Dan

        Chris is right, Title has an e, not an a.

        • Dan

          Also, carnivore is written without an a or capitol C in the article. That would mean meat-eater, not member of the Order Carnivora on two counts. Double typo, or science fail?

          • Laura E. McRae

            Thanks Dan, I can definitely see the points that you are making. The article does use the more common term “carnivore” instead of Carnivora. It is not unusual when speaking or writing outside of strict scientific circles for authors and scientists alike to use the more common lay term “carnivores” to refer to the Order.

            Annoying and confusing, I know, but what can we do. Many words in the English language have more than one meaning depending on their context.
            So, is the olinguito a carnivore? Yes, the olinguito can correctly be called a carnivore, as a member of the Order Carnivora; however, it is carnivore that isn’t carnivorous.
            The take away message here is that not all carnivores (i.e. members of the Order Carnivora) are, in fact, meat-eating.

    • BTR

      This struck me as odd too.

  • toddstowell

    This is great news!

  • Bob Rhea

    The Olinquito has been known by Columbia natives for hundreds of years. It’s a new discovery alright but, only to the scientific world of Smithsonian.

    • Melissa Buitrago

      It’s Colombia, please.

    • Melissa Bedoya

      Colombia

  • nathan

    Im a child zoolagy protagy and I love this

    • Rich

      Learn how spell zoology and protege first.

      • Morris Stegosaurus

        I think he actually means “prodigy”, rather than “protégé”. …and that’s exactly why spelling matters.

        • Linda

          Good work, Morris.

      • Jade

        I think he spelled it like that to make it rhyme.

    • eatinb

      Good work Nathan. Spelling DOES matter but don’t let the meanies get you down. Enjoy the world around you and hold on to your dreams. Study hard and work at your future and you can make it happen.

  • Gaylene

    Reminds me of a marmot.

  • Kathryn

    Well done all involved – yet more evidence of the value of museum natural history collections.

  • marcelle

    keep up the good work its fantastique

  • Dragonlady

    why does the Institute not take out the skeletal remains of a giant race. Skeletons of giants have been found and confirmed all over the world… it is fact. These humanoid skeletons exist yet…nothing in the text books about them.. no history, no science,,,nothing that is public…Re-writing man’s history is not a bad thing.. we DO NOT come from the monkey.

  • jeremiah

    i love this aminal

  • jeremiah

    lol i thank this is aewsome

  • Jeremiah

    I sure do want a pet Olinguito. Theeeey’re great!

  • parteek gill

    i like dis

  • lulu

    IT’S SO CUUUUTTTEEEE!!!!!!!

  • Arley

    Hola, soy Arley Esquivel, quiero compartir con ustedes que revisando sus estudios y viendo los medios informativos acerca del olinguito; quiero contarles que en mi pueblo Naranjal en el valle del Cauca cerca a Cali colombia, creo tener una de estas mismas especies, ya que comparándolas, son muy similares.

    Estaré en espera de Cualquier respuesta sobre el tema a mi Mail arley3373@hotmail.com

    Gracias

  • curious mom

    Do they know how long an olinguito can live?

    • Mark Peter van Sijll

      The “olinguito” / It is just discovered…, How could they know?
      Think before you ask….

      • Mark peter van sijll is a dick

        Actually. As it states above: “The olinguito (Bassaricyon neblina) came close to being discovered several times during the past century and was even exhibited in zoos. For example, this female olinguito lived in various zoos in the U.S. decades ago. The problem was a case of mistaken identity.” To answer your question curious mom I’m sure they know the age. Only reason why its a new discovery is because they now understand it’s a different species than what they had assumed before.

        • Mark Peter van Sijll

          The comment from “curious mom” before my comment is deleted or changed…
          Therefor my comment has no value anymore.
          So, your statement “Mark.. is a dick”
          Is as stupid as you are yourself.

  • LUIS CARLOS AVENDAÑO LOPEZ

    This is a new song that I discovered on OLINGUITO, a very special animal.
    ihttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VPOTkI4-fx8

  • cool

    jh

  • cool

    wow very nice very cool

  • ???

    Who wrote this???

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