ExplorersBio

Kristofer Helgen

Zoologist

Emerging Explorers

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Notes and sketches of a newly described mammal, the “olinguito” (Bassaricyon neblina) found by a research team led by Kristofer Helgen.

Illustration by Andrew Howley/NGS

Photo: Kris Helgen

Photograph by Bruce M. Beehler

Dr. Kristofer Helgen discovers new animals. Deep in a New Guinea rain forest. High on an Andean mountainside. Resting in a museum's specimen drawer.

"Conventional wisdom would have it that we know all the mammals of the world,” he notes. In fact, we know so little. Unique species, profoundly different from anything ever discovered, are out there waiting to be found.” His own efforts prove this. Helgen himself has discovered approximately 100 new species of mammals previously unknown to science. To date, about 25 have been confirmed in published scientific papers.

"Since I was three years old, I've been transfixed by animals," he recalls. "Even then, my excitement revolved around figuring out how many different kinds there were. Every time I picked up a book and learned about a new species, I would add it to my list. In some very real way that's exactly what I still do today. Making these discoveries is the most personally rewarding thing I could ever hope to do."

Helgen's search plunges him into the wild on almost every continent. Yet about three times as many new finds are made within the walls of museums. "An expert can go into any large natural history museum and identify kinds of animals no one knew existed," he explains. When only a few specimens of a species exist, and reside in museums scattered across the globe, sheer logistics often prevent researchers from connecting the dots and pinpointing a new find. "Collections build up over centuries," he says, "It's virtually impossible to fully interpret that wealth of material. Every day brings surprises."

As Curator of Mammals for the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, he oversees not only the collection's use as an invaluable research resource, but also its continued expansion through new exploration.

One such expedition, to the Foja Mountains of New Guinea, yielded extraordinary results. Helgen describes the remote region as "one of the few places in the world with no villages, no roads, no human population at all. Animals there were much more abundant and far less afraid of people since the area has such a fantastic history of being uninhabited." Helgen identified a number of new species including mice, rats, and a "beautiful little grey-brown wallaby I hope to name within the next year." He also documented viable populations of animals previously thought to be in major decline, or possibly even extinct.

Another exploratory trip to the Andes in Ecuador was inspired by an unusual set of skins and skulls Helgen noticed in a museum collection. He recognized it as a type of Olingo (a long-tailed cat-like animal related to raccoons) which had never received a scientific name. "I could have simply described it as a new species based on the specimens in the museum. But I wanted to go a step further and find it in the wild. We brought back film, photographs, and a much better understanding of how and where it lives." In fact, its cloud forest habitat is being rapidly cleared for agriculture and other development. Helgen hopes that publicity surrounding the announcement, as well as the animal's inherent appeal, will generate concern for its threatened forest home.

Even discoveries made without leaving the confines of museums can have far reaching impact. A case in point is the hog badger. Long thought to be a single widespread species, Helgen's study of museum specimens revealed it is in fact three distinct species, two of which face serious threats from hunting and logging. "No one thought it was endangered before," he says. "Now, we need to reassess that." The finding could also guide zoos in captive breeding programs, and would have been valuable in previous studies considering hog badgers as potential vectors of disease such as SARS.

Sometimes, the wisest conservation policies stem from proving a species should not be protected. Helgen's research showed that raccoons which have been protected as endangered endemic Caribbean mammals are actually an invasive species introduced to the islands in recent centuries. What's more, they threaten native ground-nesting birds and sea turtles; and can spread disease among wildlife and humans. So strategies should contain, rather than protect, this potentially destructive animal.

"Some of these conservation-related discoveries are just as exciting as finding a new species," he notes. When my findings interact with the real world through epidemiology, economics, and conservation, it really fuels me onward."

Inside National Geographic Magazine

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In Their Words

It constantly surprises me how little we know about the mammals of the world. Making discoveries about this overlooked wealth of biodiversity feels absolutely fantastic.

—Kristofer Helgen

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