A small mammal with fluffy red-orange fur, a short bushy tail, and an adorable rounded face has leapt onto the raccoon family tree.
Scientists at the Smithsonian in Washington announced Thursday the discovery of a new species of mammal called the olinguito (pronounced oh-lin-GHEE-toe). If you’re a fan of long technical names, this one is Bassaricyon neblina.
Such a discovery is rare. The olinguito is the first mammalian carnivore species to be newly identified in the Americas in 35 years, according to Kristofer Helgen, curator of mammals at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. His research group’s study on the creature is being published in the journal ZooKeys.
Researchers argue that the olinguito should be considered the smallest living member of the raccoon family, which includes other animals that make us go “awww” such as coatis and kinkajous. The Smithsonian describes the olinguito’s appearance as a cross between a house cat and a teddy bear. Cats, bears, and olinguitos belong to the Carnivora order.
This animal had been seen before by humans, Helgen said, but it had been “a case of mistaken identity.”
“It was in museums, it’s been in zoos, and its DNA had even been sequenced, but no one had connected the pieces and looked close enough to realize, basically, the significance of this remarkable and this beautiful animal,” Helgen said.
Previously, scientists had assumed that olinguitos were members of their sister species, the olingos, Helgen said. Olingos are larger, less furry and have longer faces than the newly discovered species.
Tracking the olinguito
Helgen began his detective work in pursuit of the new species when he set out about a decade ago to comprehensive study of olingos.
Behind the scenes at the Chicago Field Museum in 2003, he remembers pulling out a drawer of skins and skulls that didn’t look like any animal he had ever seen before, or that had been reported by zoologists. The teeth and skull were smaller and shaped differently than olingos, and the coat was denser.
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