The small bushy tailed rust colored furry mammal they named the olinguito was a rare find the first new carnivore species found in the Western Hemisphere in 35 years.
Its discovery is a story that goes back a decade ago to efforts by Smithsonian zoologist Kris tofer M. Helgen to count the number of species of the olingo a member of the raccoon family. At the Field Museum of Chicago what he found in a drawer stopped him dead in his tracks.
The reddish orange pelts he saw were nothing like the skins of the larger brownish olingos. Searching further he found the anatomy of the skull was also different shorter snout dissimilar teeth.
I knew at that point it was a new species but I also knew I needed to be sure Helgen said. For years he toiled away to confirm that the olinguito was a new species with thorough investigation and DNA testing always afraid that another scientist would beat him to the punch.
Finally he called upon Kays the world s resident olingo expert to help him track down an olinguito in its natural habitat. The researchers along with Ecuadorian zoologist Miguel Pinto set off on a weeks long field expedition in 2006 to the Andes.
Among the treetops the team confirmed the existence of four distinct subspecies of olinguito. With its findings the team in the following years mapped out the animal s predicted geographic distributions reorganized the raccoon family tree using DNA sequencing and peered into every nook and cranny of their bones. Finally the team introduced the newly named creature on Thursday.
Getting a new scientific name out there is really fun Helgen said. It s almost like giving birth.
Olinguito is Spanish for little adorable olingo he said at a Smithsonian Institution news conference announcing the discovery. The researchers also published their findings online in the journal ZooKeys.
The discovery corrects a long running case of mistaken identity. For decades the animals had been observed in the wild tucked away in museum collections and even exhibited at zoos including the National Zoo.
In some ways this animal was hiding in plain sight said Kays director of the Biodiversity and Earth Observation Lab at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. Its pelts and bones were found stashed away in dusty museum drawers either mislabeled or not labeled at all.
One captured olinguito puzzled zookeepers because it refused to breed or mingle with other olingos.
They thought it was just a fussy olingo but turns out it was completely the wrong species Helgen said.
Weighing only two pounds about as much as a guinea pig the creature takes the title of smallest member of the raccoon family. It dines on fruits such as figs but also enjoys insects and plant nectar. Although the new animal is in the taxonomic order Carnivora a group of mammals that includes cats and dogs it is not carnivorous because it does not primarily eat meat.