Scientists have named a new species of mammal, the first in South America in 35 years. Actually, the little olinguito, which looks like a raccoon or small bear, had been misidentified for hundreds of years, hiding among its well-known larger cousin, the olingo. Now scientists at the Smithsonian have determined that the smaller animal is a separate species, and science journal readers are formally introduced to the cute little olinguito.
Discovery of a new mammal in the Americas
For years the olingo, a large carnivore found in South America, was kept in zoos. But some were large and some were small. When a small female named Ringerl refused to breed with other olingos, zoologists suspected that she might be a different species.
Dr. Kristofer Helgen, curator of mammals at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, lead the team that investigated the possibility of a new species. For more than a decade, he examined hundreds of specimens of olingos in museum archives and conducted DNA testing. Finally, in 2006, he and his team traveled to northern South America to see if he could find these smaller olingos in the wild.
“When we went to the field we found it in the very first night,” said study co-author Roland Kays of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in “Olinguito, New Mammal Species Announced By Smithsonian Researchers,” by Seth Borenstein, August 15, 2013, in HuffingtonPost.com. “It was almost like it was waiting for us.”
Olinguito makes its debut
Now officially recognized as the new species olinguito (Spanish for “little olingo”), the Latin named Bassaricyon neblina:
• is two pounds (900 grams)
• has a 14-inch body (355 mm) with a 13-17-inch tail (335-425 mm)
• has claws and large eyes
• lives in trees in the cloud forests of Ecuador and Colombia
• males and females are the same size
• has one baby at a time
• eats fruit, insects and nectar
“The discovery of the olinguito shows us that the world is not yet completely explored, its most basic secrets not yet revealed,” said Helgen in “Smithsonian Scientists Discover New Carnivore: The Olinguito,” August 15, 2013. He added: “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.”
What distinguishes a new species?
How did zoologists recognize that the olingo and olinguito were different species? The olinguito had:
• different shaped teeth and skull
• smaller size and shorter tail
• smaller ears
• dark reddish fur rather than gray fur
• longer and denser coat
• lives in higher elevations
The importance of museum archives
Research into the olinguito began when Helgen scoured the archives and drawers of museums looking at hundreds of skeletons, pelts and teeth of olingos. These collections offer scientists valuable reserves of specimens that could yield information on new species.
Dr. Larry Heaney, curator of mammals at Chicago’s Field Museum, where Helgen began his research, said in “Newly Discovered Mammal Solves Decades-Old Zoological Mystery,” by Elizabeth Barber in the Christian Science Monitor, August 15, 2013: “As more specimens accumulate, it becomes possible to see things that couldn’t be recognized previously. …There’s an awful lot we don’t know about basic diversity of mammals.”
Other species discovered
Even in the twenty-first century, the world offers surprises to scientists. It’s encouraging to know that we have not yet explored all there is to learn. Recently, scientists have discovered a few new species:
• flying fox bat in Samoa
• seven new species of blenny fish in deep rock and coral reefs in the western Atlantic and eastern Pacific oceans
• the tropical magnificent frigatebird on the Galapagos Islands
• giant golden orb weaver spider in South Africa
• tiny new robber frog and rain frog in Panama.
What do you find most interesting about the discovery considering how long it took to investigate?