According to an August 15 news release from the Smithsonian Institution, scientists from the prestigious institution discovered for the first time in 35 years a new species of carnivore, called Bassaricyon neblina. Also called the olinguito, Smithsonian scientists published a paper describing the new species, which appears in the August 15 edition of the journal ZooKeys.
Smithsonian scientists happened upon the discovery during a journey from the overlooked museum specimens in Chicago to the cloud forests in South America to several genetics laboratories in Washington, D.C. According to the scientists, the animal has been the victim in a case of mistaken identity for over 100 years.
Resembling a cross between a teddy bear and a common domestic house cat, the olinguito is the most recently documented member of the Procyonidae family, which includes olingos, kinkajous, coatis, and raccoons. Weighing in at a mere two pounds, the olinguito is native to the cloud forests of Ecuador and Colombia, and is the newest member of the Carnivora club, which, according to the Smithsonian scientists, is a rare 21st century discovery.
According to Kristofer Helgen, curator of mammals at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and leader of the new discovery team, “The discovery of the olinguito shows us that the world is not yet completely explored, its most basic secrets not yet revealed. If new carnivores can still be found, what other surprises await us? 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.”
The process of verifying the olinguito as a new species took ten years, as the discovery was an added surprise to the completion of the first comprehensive study of olingos, which consist of several tree-dwelling species of the Bassaricyon genus. Helgen and his team examined in excess of 95 percent of the global olingo specimens in museums, DNA tests, and the review of historical field notes and other data, which led to the discovery of the olinguito.
According to Roland Kays, director of the Biodiversity and Earth Observation Lab at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, looking at the evidence of the new species provided a challenge worthy of an expedition, saying, “The data from the old specimens gave us an idea of where to look, but it still seemed like a shot in the dark. But these Andean forests are so amazing that even if we didn’t find the animal we were looking for, I knew our team would discover something cool along the way.”