Cute carnivore found hiding in plain sight.
It’s cute, it’s cuddly, and until recently, overlooked. Researchers announced last Thursday that they have discovered a new species of mammal, called the olinguito. The critter, which is approximately the size of a raccoon, belongs to a grouping of animals that includes cats, dogs, and bears.
The olinguito was discovered in the forests of Colombia and Ecuador. The animal typically leaps through trees at night, according to Smithsonian researcher Kristofer Helgen, who has been tracking the mammal for the past decade.
The mammal should not have gone unnoticed for as long as it did, as there had been one inhabiting the Smithsonian-run National Zoo for over a year under a mistaken identity. The critter in the zoo, named Ringerl, was mistaken for a sister species named the olingo. For many years, Ringerl was shipped from zoo to zoo in order to breed with other olingos, but she would not.
Evidently, fusiness had nothing to do with it.
The olinguito is omnivorous, consuming fruits and insects. Its average weight is two pounds, and it is described as solitary and nocturnal. From what has been observed so far, olinguitos primarily inhabit trees, and transport themselves by leaping from branch to branch.
Helgen suspected that olinguitos were different from olingos by observing their pelts and skeletons in museums. When he brought a team of researchers to South America in 2006, Helgen found an olinguito within the first day of searching. The olinguitos’ delayed discovery could be attributed to their nocturnal nature and their preference for high treetops.
Compared to olingos, olinguitos have rounder faces and tinier ears, as well as darker and bushier fur. They are also smaller overall. Olinguitos have been described as being “a cross between a teddy bear and a house cat.”
Despite only recently being announced that the olinguito is its own species, researchers have determined that the animal is at risk, as over forty percent of the animal’s natural habitat has been deforested in recent years.
The discovery of the olinguito is significant, as this is the first identification of a new species in the order Carnivora in the Americas in over thirty-five years. Discovery of a new mammal species is rare, as most newly discovered animals in recent years have been small, do not possess hair, or do not have live births of young.
It is under public assumption that there are no new large mammal species to discover, but with findings like this, it is obvious that is not the case. Who knows what other undiscovered animals will be found hiding in plain sight?