An Andean treetop mammal called olinguito is the smallest member of the raccoon family
August 16, 2013 4:00 AM
Mark Gurney/Smithsonian Institution
This photo provided by the Smithsonian Institution shows an olinguito, which had been observed for years, even in its natural habitat, but mistaken for the olingo.
By Meeri Kim The Washington Post
WASHINGTON -- Amid the misty treetops and giant tomato-size figs in the Andean cloud forests, the researchers spotted the animal the first night.
"It sort of bounced around the trees almost like a monkey," zoologist Roland Kays said, "doing its thing, eating the figs."
The small, bushy-tailed, rust-colored furry mammal they named the olinguito was a rare find -- the first new carnivore species found in the Western Hemisphere in 35 years.
Its discovery is a story that goes back a decade ago, to efforts by Smithsonian zoologist Kristofer Helgen to count the number of species of the olingo, a member of the raccoon family. At the Field Museum of Chicago, what he found in a drawer stopped him dead in his tracks.
The reddish-orange pelts he saw were nothing like the skins of the larger, brownish olingos. Searching further, he found that the anatomy of the skull was also different -- shorter snout, dissimilar teeth. "I knew at that point it was a new species, but I also knew I needed to be sure," Mr. Helgen said.
For years, he toiled away to confirm that the olinguito was a new species with thorough investigation and DNA testing, always afraid that another scientist would beat him to the punch. Finally, he called upon Mr. Kays, the world's resident olingo expert, to help him track down an olinguito in its natural habitat. The researchers, along with Ecuadorean zoologist Miguel Pinto, set off on a weeks-long field expedition in 2006 to the Andes.
Among the treetops, the team confirmed the existence of four distinct subspecies of olinguito. With its findings, the team in the following years mapped out the animal's predicted geographic distributions, reorganized the raccoon family tree using DNA sequencing, and peered into every nook and cranny of their bones. Finally, the team introduced the newly named creature Thursday.
"Getting a new scientific name out there is really fun," Mr. Helgen said. "It's almost like giving birth."
"Olinguito" is Spanish for "little, adorable olingo," he said at a Smithsonian Institution news conference announcing the discovery. The researchers also published their findings online in the journal ZooKeys.
The discovery corrects a long-running case of mistaken identity. For decades, the animals had been observed in the wild, tucked away in museum collections, and even exhibited at zoos -- including the National Zoo.
"In some ways, this animal was hiding in plain sight," said Mr. Kays, director of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences' Biodiversity and Earth Observation Lab. Its pelts and bones were found stashed away in dusty museum drawers, either mislabeled or not labeled at all.
One captured olinguito puzzled zookeepers because it refused to breed or mingle with other olingos. "They thought it was just a fussy olingo, but turns out it was completely the wrong species," Mr. Helgen said.
Weighing only 2 pounds -- about as much as a guinea pig -- the creature takes the title of smallest member of the raccoon family. It dines on fruits such as figs, but also enjoys insects and plant nectar. Although the new animal is in the taxonomic Order Carnivora -- a group of mammals that include cats and dogs -- it is not carnivorous, because it does not primarily eat meat.
Although olinguitos have been spotted in the cloud forests of the northern Andes -- in rain forests at elevations of 5,000 to 9,000 feet above sea level -- scientists speculate that the animals also might live elsewhere in Central and South America.
Bucknell University zoologist DeeAnn Reeder, co-curator of a scientific database of mammals, finds the olinguito to be an "extraordinarily beautiful animal," and calls it "special and amazing" to describe a new carnivore in the 21st century. "This gets people excited about science and museum work, and about the things you can discover," she said.
Ms. Reeder said many newly described species come from older museum collections that were never examined closely, but that "in no way makes them less valid or less exciting than catching something in the field for the very first time."
Other discoveries often have been known to indigenous peoples for hundreds if not thousands of years, but not the olinguito. Mr. Helgen could find no one who knew anything about the animal, and no native names exist, even though its population is estimated to be in the tens of thousands.
The number also puts the little creature safely out of the endangered zone -- for now. More than 40 percent of its historic habitat has been converted to agriculture or urban areas, the study has found.
"The cloud forest is really a magical place with figs and clouds and cool vegetation," Mr. Kays said. He calls it as "a real crucible of evolution," whose isolation has promoted a vast diversification of animals.
Ecologist and conservationist Gerardo Ceballos at the National Autonomous University of Mexico said the finding was "rather remarkable," and added that the discovery of such new mammals is part of a trend.
"It is kind of scary because it says we know very little," Mr. Ceballos said, noting that about 15 percent to 20 percent of all mammalian species have been discovered in the past 15 years. Much of that is due to new genetic tools and field technology that enables automated remote equipment to nab a look at elusive critters.