The olinguito has become a science media darling this past week. And why not? It's small and furry and doesn't look quite like anything you've seen before.
Unless you've seen an olingo.
Olingos are relatively obscure relatives of the more popular raccoon. They live up in rainforest canopies of South America, and are mostly active at night, which helps to maintain their obscurity.
But there are plenty of specimens of olingos residing in museum collections around the world. And they are well-lit and slow-moving (i.e. dead).
And that's where this story of discovery begins. Not in the Ecuadorian rainforests, but in the dusty cabinets in the bowels of museums.
Kristofer Helgen of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History set out to revise the taxonomy of olingos. Five species had been described but it wasn't clear if they were really five separate species. As Kris examined specimens in various collections, he got a surprise. He found a few that were remarkably different - different fur, different skull, different teeth. Different enough that perhaps they weren't even olingos.
Kris enlisted mammalogist Roland Kays, who was one of the few people who had ever studied olingos, while doing his PhD work in Panama. He had caught some, fitted them with radio collars, followed them around, and learned a little bit about their ecology and behavior.
"Not very much, mind you - it was a small paper," Roland admits. "But, given that no one else had published it, I was the world's expert on olingos. That's what happens - if you make the pond small enough, you can be the big toad."
Excited about the possibility that this was, in fact, an unknown species, Kris and Roland set out to find living specimens - and to obtain fresh DNA samples with which they hoped to quantify the genetic differences between olingos and this new species.
The specimens they had examined in museum collections had been tagged with information about their origins. So they contacted Ecuadorian zoologist Miguel Pinto, who helped them organize a field team, and they hiked up into the high elevation cloud forests of the Andes.
They obtained their DNA samples and, sure enough, they were significantly different from the olingo, making this the first new carnivore found in the Western Hemisphere in about 35 years. And the last one was a weasel which was also discovered in the same habitat, highlighting the importance of this threatened ecosystem. No telling what remains to be discovered, especially hiding high in the treetop canopies.
The olinguito ("little olingo") is the common name for the species they described in a paper published last week in ZooKeys: Taxonomic revision of the olingos (Bassaricyon), with description of a new species, the Olinguito.
Its official name is Bassaricyon neblina ("neblina" meaning "clouds," in reference to its cloud forest habitat).
Interestingly - and something much of the media has gotten wrong about the olinguito - although it is technically true to call it a carnivore - because it is a member of the order Carnivora - you shouldn't describe it as "carnivorous." As far as they know, the olinguito is a frugivore - a fruit eater - with a fondness for figs - and a disdain for bananas. It may turn out to eat some meat but it appears to be like its fellow carnivore the giant panda, which is mostly an herbivore. Evolutionarily, they are of the order Carnivora, but some of them have adapted to vegetarian lifestyles.
I interviewed Roland last week because I work with him at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and I see him every day and it would've been almost rude not to.
He emphasized the importance of rainforests but also the crucial role of natural history collections in museums. They document what the world was like 100 years ago, and how it has changed - and he stressed the need to keep contributing to them to maintain this record for future study.
For more information about the olinguito, check out last Thursday's (August 15, 2013) press conference from the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, in which Roland gives a presentation and a bit more detail.
I will also be posting more video clips of Roland answering olinguito questions. That is, questions about olinguitos. Not by olinguitos.
This story has spread throughout the science blogosphere this week - it was pretty hard to miss - but I'd like to point out two excellent stories that have appeared here in the SciAm blogs:
Becky Crew's The Olinguito: A New Species That Looks House Cat Crossed With a Teddy Bear, and Arielle Duhaime-Ross' Previously Unknown Mammal Spent Decades Hiding in Plain Sight.