Smithsonian Announces Discovery of New Mammal: Olinguito

Such a discovery in the 21st century is incredibly rare, scientists say

Friday, Aug 23, 2013  |  Updated 12:29 PM EDT
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The Smithsonian Institution revealed the discovery of a new animal species, the olinguito, Thursday morning. News4's Tony Tull reports.

Tony Tull

The Smithsonian Institution revealed the discovery of a new animal species, the olinguito, Thursday morning. News4's Tony Tull reports.

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The Smithsonian Institution revealed the discovery of a new animal species, the olinguito, Thursday morning.

The olinguito (Bassaricyon neblina) hails from the same family as raccoons, coatis, kinkajous and olingos, but it's been a victim of mistaken identity for more than 100 years, the Smithsonian says. The olinguito is the the first carnivore species to be discovered in the American continents in 35 years -- though now, the animal has evolved to eat mostly fruit.

The animal is usually about two and a half feet long, weighs about two pounds and looks like "a cross between a teddy bear and a house cat," said Kristofer Helgen, curator of mammals at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and leader of the team that discovered the new species.

The olinguito lives in the cloud forests of the Andes mountains in South America. The big-eyed animals, with soft orange-brown fur, are solitary and usually have one baby at a time.

The new species was discovered during a study of olingos, a previously known species. The team's work ended up revealing the existence of the olinguito through DNA testing and historic field data.

The revelation comes after more than a decade of work as a team of scientists reviewed previously overlooked specimens "from museum cabinets in Chicago to cloud forests in South America to genetics labs in Washington, D.C.," a release from the Smithsonian said.

At a press conference Thursday, Helgen described looking at olingo specimens at Chicago's Field Museum and realizing the pelts and skulls the museum had collected were not like the other olingo specimens he had seen. "This stopped me in my tracks," he said. "These skins are like nothing I had ever seen before. "These had long, flowing, luxurious fur, soft to the touch. ... Almost red panda red."

"Well, it's a wonderful example of science at its best, and a scientist doing his best work," said G. Wayne Clouch, secretary of the Smithsonian Insitution. "And it's a new species, the first one of its kind that's been discovered in 35 years. It can't get any better than that."

The team of scientists saw olinguitosa number of times in the wild, at first believing they were simply smaller olingos, Helgen said during a press conference at the Smithsonian Castle Thursday morning.

"It was real; it was alive; it was in the wild," said Helgen.

Scientists say the discovery of a new mammal in the 21st century is incredibly rare.

"The discovery of the olinguito shows us that the world is not yet completely explored, its most basic secrets not yet revealed," Helgen said.

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