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Cuddly new species of mammal discovered living in mountain forests of South America

The Smithsonian announced today (Aug. 15) that a team of researchers has made the rare discovery of an entirely new species of carnivorous mammal.

Although previously observed in the wild, the adorable olinguito (Bassaricyon neblina), a member of the raccoon family of mammals, has been a victim of mistaken identity for years, with one specimen incorrectly thought to be an olingo–a related species–even residing for a time at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington.

Now, DNA results have confirmed that the cuddly creature is the latest scientifically documented member of the family Procyonidae, comprising raccoons, coatis, kinkajous, and olingos.

Irresistibly cute with a teddy bear-like face, the reddish-brown olinguito is about 28 inches long, including a tail that is as long as its body, and weighs about two pounds. According to a Smithsonian researcher, the nocturnal animal lives high in the trees of mountainous ‘cloud forests’ in Ecuador and Colombia.

The fuzzy creature dines on fruit and has a single offspring at a time, said Kristofer Helgen, the Smithsonian’s curator of mammals. It is the first new species of carnivore to be discovered on the American continent in 35 years, according to a Smithsonian news release. The details of the discovery are published in the Aug. 15 issue of the journal Zookeys.

According to Helgen, who has been tracking the olinguito for the past ten years, this cute little cousin to the raccoon has been “hiding in plain sight for a long time.” Talking to ABC News, he said he first got the notion that the olinguito was different from the olingo after examining various pelts and skeletons in a museum. Now, he says, it’s hard to understand how olinguitos could have been mistaken for olingos when they differ from one another “in almost every way you can look at it.”

Olinguitos are smaller than olingos and have shorter tails, rounder faces, tinier ears, and darker, bushier fur, Helgen told ABC. He described them as looking something like “a cross between a teddy bear and a house cat.”

Helgen’s team cautions that the olinguito’s cloud forest Andean habitat is under extreme pressure from human expansion and development. The team estimates that 42 percent of the olinguito’s native habitat has given way to agricultural and urban expansion.

“The cloud forests of the Andes are a world unto themselves, filled with many species found nowhere else, many of them threatened of endangered,” Helgen said in the Smithsonian release. “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.”

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