On August 15, 2013, the world heard a story of mistaken identities set right. A small team of scientists on a routine research task discovered something amiss in rarely seen, decades-old museum artifacts. They had a hunch that something wild lay hidden behind established ideas and old bones.
They followed their hunch to the Andean cloud forest: a mountainous region of dense canopy-rainforest cloaked in fog. After flying, driving and hiking old mule trails into this mysterious region, they found what they spent years searching for waiting amongst the misty leaves.
No, it was not the villain from Dan Brown’s next novel. It was a two-pound, pointy nosed fruit-eating mammal from the raccoon family: the olinguito. This furry reddish-brown mammal is nocturnal, lives mostly in trees and falls into the order, Carnivora. Olinguito (oh-lin-GEE’-toe) is the first new species of Carnivora to be discovered in 35 years!
Dr. Roland Kays of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences announced that he and, along researchers from Ecuador and the Smithsonian, had discovered and characterized the new mammal which “looks like a cross between a house cat and a teddy bear.”
Click here for a video featuring the research team that discovered olinguito.
The olinguito inhabits a small and rare ecosystem: the cloud forests of Colombia and Ecuador. These rainforests lie on mountain sides in the tropics, more than a mile above sea level. Cool temperatures and thick fog from clouds forming on the slopes characterize this little-explored habitat. The olinguito gets the second half of its scientific name, Bassaricyon neblina, from the Spanish term for “fog.”
Olinguito’s small geographic range has not, however, stopped its rapid spread through the Internet. Propelled by such monikers as “cutest new animal,” the olinguito has travelled from the Washington Post to NBC to the BBC and even to Wikipedia since the announcement of its discovery on August, 15, 2013.
This cute new-Carnivora-on-the-block shares its order with dogs, cats, bears, raccoons and kinkajous. But it is with olinguito’s closest relatives, the larger lowland olingos that the story of olinguito’s discovery begins.
“Discovering” a species is a funny process. The scientist that “discovers” a new species is not necessarily the first person to see it. In fact, the “discoverer” is usually late to the party. The olinguito is a case in point. If you look at the animal bones and pelts at the museum, or if you frequented major U.S. zoos in the 1960’s and 70’s, there is a legitimate chance that you have seen an olinguito and didn’t realize it. In fact, almost everyone confused olinguito with its olingo cousins. That is until Kristofer Helgen, mammals curator at the Smithsonian, started opening drawers.
In the early 2000’s, Helgen set out to put the genus Bassaricyon (which includes olingos and olinguitos) in order. He painstakingly combed through skeletons and hides kept in museums around the world, slowly but surely drawing the lines between species.
But Helgen began noticing some odd-specimens-out. Misshapen teeth, smaller and rounder skulls and fur too thick and bushy for an olingo living in a hot rainforest. Helgen reviewed the evidence at hand and decided that he might be on the trail of a new species.
Helgen began assembling a team of olingo experts including Roland Kays, who studied olingos in graduate school. Standing next to a picture of his longhaired, grad student self holding a caged olingo, Kays explained that as few scientists studied olingos, the list of experts was small.
“Make the pond small enough and you can be the big toad,” Kays quipped. Kays brought years of experience in animal tracking and field biology to the team and helped Helgen map out where their new species would most likely be found based on its physical attributes and where the specimens came from. It all pointed to the cloud forests.
A Trip to the Zoo
Kays, Helgen and other researchers, convinced of their discovery, continued to follow the evidence trail of smaller, furrier olingos. That trail led to the zoo.
In the 1960’s and70’s, a German zookeeper had sent a small, bushy female “olingo” to zoos around the United States. She made stops in Washington DC, Tucson, Salt Lake City, Louisville and New York in an attempt by the zookeeper to breed her.
Helgen and Kays spoke to the zookeeper’s widow, and she told them that their “olingo” would not breed with the others. The zookeeper thought his animal was just fussy, but that lack of breeding was a giant flag for the researchers. Animals of different species do not, by definition, interbreed (the notable exceptions being horses and donkeys to make mules) so they hypothesized that this animal was their new species.
So on top of the evidence from the museum specimens, the researchers then knew that as of the 1970’s, their new species still existed. All that remained was to find it in the wild.
Up the Mountain
The researchers tracked the museum records to the Otonga Forest Reserve in Ecuador. They carried cameras, traps and other equipment on mule-back up to the mile-high habitat of their new species. And on the first night, they saw it.
Their new species measured about 14 inches in length, with another 13-17 inches of tail tacked on. It’s thick red coat covered it from the tip of its tail to its round, wide-eyed face. Its scientific name pays homage to the cloud forests it inhabits, but as a testament to its cuddly teddy-bear appearance, the researchers gave it the common name, “olinguito:” Spanish for “cute little olingo.”
A “63-Page Opus”
While the team of scientists that “discovers” a new species may not be the ones who first see it in the wild, they are the first ones to take on the herculean task of describing it for science.
Olinguito, as well as the whole Bassaricyon genus are described in the “63-page opus” of a paper in the journal, ZooKeys.
The olinguito is nocturnal, and they observed it eating fruit. Kays does admit that because olinguito’s teeth are “kinda sharp,” they may eat insects or small animals as well. Olinguito also has one baby at a time as opposed to litters, and thick fur for warmth at high elevations.
Scientists measure genetic differences, called phylogenies, by looking at changes in the DNA that codes for cytochrome b, a common protein. Olinguito’s cytochrome b DNA was about 10% different from its olingo cousins, an appropriate split for separate species. Kays and Helgen’s group estimate that olingos and olinguito evolutionarily split about 3 and a half million years ago, most likely when some of their ancestors began to climb the Andes mountains.
Measurements taken from bones and live animals show that olinguitos are 5 to 20% shorter in length than their lowland cousins and about 35% lighter. However, a quick look at the skulls side by side shows that the olinguito has a wider, rounder head. Based on climate and sighting data, the olinguito is more or less separated from other olingos based on the elevations of their different habitats.
More To Learn
The olinguito’s popularity may help the researchers support their future research into the roughly 10,000 olinguitos living in the wild. Kays says there is still plenty of room for study of these animals. Olinguito’s nocturnal and tree-bound lifestyle makes observing things like its mating habits or social interactions difficult.
To study North Carolina’s wildlife, Kays often employs radio collars, hidden cameras, and local citizens, but even these tools are largely ineffective with olinguitos. Kays says the olinguitos are too small for most radio collars, hidden cameras don’t work well in trees as the wind will trigger them when nothing is happening and while citizens are happy to place a camera or two in the forest, climbing a tree to do it is often asking too much.
Even capturing olinguitos with normal traps is difficult work, and Kays had few successes in his attempts.
“There are so many fig trees there for an olinguito to choose from,” Kays said. “Why would it eat at the one with a strange-looking cage?”
Despite these challenges, Kays, Helgen and the others are already planning their next trip to the cloud forests. Kays is quick to point out however that these types of discoveries can just as easily be made in a museum vault as out in strange habitats. Scientists have only identified a small percentage of the organisms on Earth and many more are right there, waiting like the olinguito.
“There are still amazing discoveries to be made,” Kays said. “Anyone can go out and pursue these discoveries.”
- Daniel Lane
Daniel Lane covers science, medicine and the environment as a reporter/writer. He is currently pursuing a master's degree in medical and science journalism at UNC - Chapel Hill.