With its soft, round ears, pink nose and wide, brown eyes, the olinguito is an absolute teddy bear, and the first new species of carnivore discovered in the Western Hemisphere in 35 years.
At home in the humid cloud forests that line the slopes of the Andes in Colombia and Ecuador, the newly described olinguito (Bassaricyon neblina) belongs to the Bassaricyon genus of small, nocturnal mammals native to Central and South America. Commonly known as olingos, the first of their kind was discovered just over century ago, and they have been little studied ever since, particularly as their many similarities to the slightly larger, forest-dwelling kinkajou have made sightings in the wild pretty confusing and uncertain. The taxonomic guidelines for the olingo genus have also been neglected more than that of any other carnivorous mammal in the world.
So a team from the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History led by curator of mammals, Kristofer Helgen, set out to complete the first comprehensive revision of the olingo taxonomy based on a huge array of museum specimens, anatomical and genetic analysis, field observations, and geographic range modelling. Publishing in today's issue of ZooKeys, they refined the genus to having just four species instead of five, and uncovered a number of overlooked museum specimens belonging to a species that had never before been recognised.
Weighing less than a kilogram, the olinguito is not only the smallest of its genus, it's the smallest member of the family Procyonidae, which includes raccoons, coatis, kinkajous, ringtails and cacomistles. (Btw cacomistles are definitely Pokemon, look at them.) It grows up to 40 cm long, not including its distinctive woolly tail, which stretches to 42 cm. Described by Helgen and his team as "luxurious", the olinguito's coat is dense and long, with rich, golden and reddish-brown hues tipped in black or very dark grey along its back. The unrivalled luxuriousness of its coat, plus differences in its teeth and skull, were the first signs that this animal should be placed in a new species. Its range was mapped to be between 1,500 and 2,750 metres above sea level along the Central and Western Andes, which is by far the highest elevation an olingo has ever been found, and it's likely that this isolation has allowed the species to remain so distinct from its lowland cousins.
Having sufficiently cleaned up the olingo taxonomy, Helgen and his team spent time in Ecudaor in 2006 to observe the new olinguito in the wild. They confirmed that it is strictly nocturnal, spends most of its time in the treetops, only coming down to the forest floor occasionally to eat fruits such as guava, and that they can only have one baby at a time. That year they were also able to solve the 30-year-old mystery of "Ringerl", a female olingo who had spent her entire life being transferred from zoo to zoo during the 1970s, because she would not mate with any of the other olingos. It turns out Ringerl was the first olinguito ever found, and the only one in captivity at the time.
"The discovery of the olinguito shows us that the world is not yet completely explored, its most basic secrets not yet revealed," says Helgen. "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."
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