Previously Unknown Mammal Spent Decades Hiding in Plain Sight
By Arielle Duhaime-Ross | August 20, 2013
As fans of the TV show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation know, skulls and teeth can provide excellent forensic clues. Yet any taxonomist will tell you that hard-boiled detectives and forensic scientists are far from the only ones to appreciate the investigative powers of craniums and pearly whites. The most recent proof of their taxonomic utility is the discovery of a new species of carnivore in South America—a discovery that was made possible, in part, by the teeth and skulls of previously misidentified museum specimens. Moreover, the excitement surrounding this species is amplified by the fact that the newly named olinguito (pronounced “oh-lin-GHEE-toe”) is the first new carnivorous mammal to earn the title in the Western Hemisphere in over three decades. The discovery was published in the journal ZooKeys in August.
The olinguito (Bassaricyon neblina)—characterized by a dense coat of orange-brown fur and a striking combination of teddy bear and house cat–like features—is native to the cloud forests of Colombia and Ecuador. Yet until recently scientists had mistaken this tree-dwelling creature for various known species of its closest relative, the olingo. Perched on mountain tree branches in South America, or displayed in North American museums and even some zoos—one female olinguito named “Ringerl” was mistakenly housed with olingos in the Louisville Zoo and the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C., in the late 1960s and early ‘70s—the olinguito could easily have gone unnoticed had it not been for the discerning eyes of a team of scientists of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (NMNH). The researchers had been conducting the first comprehensive study of olingos in the early 2000s when they noticed some telling differences in a few of the early 20th-century specimens that the museum continues to harbor today.
The first peculiarity Kristofer Helgen, co-author and mammal curator of the NMNH, noticed was that the olinguito’s teeth and skull were smaller and differently shaped than those of its cousins. Alerted to these singularities, Helgen’s team began to examine the museum’s skins, which revealed the olinguito’s comparatively smaller stature—the adult animal weighs about one kilogram compared with the olingo’s average of 1.4 kilograms. The former mammal also has a denser coat. Further investigation of the specimens’ DNA confirmed that the olinguito was, indeed, an overlooked and undocumented species. The researchers, however, had no idea if the animal could still be found in the wild today.
The team caught a break in 2006 when a zoologist stationed in Ecuador captured a few seconds of grainy video footage of a wild olinguito—the raccoonlike carnivore is most active at night—in a forest on the western slopes of the Andes. Soon after, Helgen returned from a trip to Ecuador with documentation, footage and pictures proving the existence of a new species of carnivore.
Although the researchers managed to learn quite a bit about the olinguito’s behavior and life history traits—it rarely leaves the trees, only rears one baby at a time and mostly eats fruit—many questions remain. We still don’t know the extent of its habitat, and many of its behavioral traits remain unknown.
With the next mission to the Ecuadorian Andes already planned, Helgen hopes to uncover information necessary to conserve this new species. “The cloud forests of the Andes are a world unto themselves, filled with many species found nowhere else—many of them threatened and endangered,” Helgen said in a press release about the discovery. As with most new species we uncover these days, there is always a chance that the knowledge gained will outlive the creature discovered, usually because habitat loss from agriculture or urban development threatens the few wild populations that remain. With the olinguito barely “out of the closet,” it would be a shame to discover a new carnivore, only to have it wiped away.
About the Author: Arielle is a Scientific American editorial intern. She covers a variety of topics including health, technology and zoology. Follow on Twitter @arielledross.