Meet The Newest Carnivore
This is the olinguito, the first carnivore species to be discovered in the Western Hemisphere in 35 years. Scientists from the Smithsonian Institute spent a decade confirming its existence on a search that took them from museums to genetics labs and cloud forests.
"The discovery of the olinguito shows us that the world is not yet completely explored, its most basic secrets not yet revealed," said study leader Kristofer Helgen, curator of mammals at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. “If new carnivores can still be found, what other surprises await us?”
The olinguito, which is in the Procyonidae family along with raccoons, had been displayed in museums and even zoos for more than 100 years before it was recognized as its own distinct species.
(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.)
Helgen and his team’s initial goal was to undertake the first comprehensive study of olingos, a tree-dwelling carnivore. But close examination of olingo specimens in museums as well as DNA testing revealed the olinguito as a new species in its own right—a victim, over the years, of mistaken identity. The team’s next step was to uncover whether or not the species still existed in the wild, which took them to the cloud forests of the Andes.
"The cloud forests of the Andes are a world unto themselves, filled with many species found nowhere else, many of them threatened or endangered," said Helgen. "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."
(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. Courtesy Smithsonian.)
All images courtesy Smithsonian Institution.