A fuzzy fog-dweller with a face like a teddy bear is the first carnivore found in the Western Hemisphere in more than three decades, a new study says.
The 2-pound (0.9-kilogram) creature, called an olinguito, didn't make itself easy to find. The orange-brown mammal lives out a solitary existence in the dense, hard-to-study cloud forests of Colombia and Ecuador, which inspired part of its Latin name Bassaricyon neblina: Neblina is Spanish for "fog."
What's more, the large-eyed critter—now the smallest known member of the raccoon family—is active only at night, when it hunts for fruit in its Andean habitat. Like other carnivores such as the giant panda, olinguitos seem to eat mostly plants, but are nevertheless part of the taxonomic order Carnivora. (Also see "Pictures: 14 Rarest and Weirdest Mammal Species Named.")
"The age of discovery is not over," said study leader Kristofer Helgen, curator of mammals at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. "In 2013 we have found this spectacular, beautiful animal, and there's a lot more to come."
Because Carnivora is the most well-studied order in the animal kingdom, it's "the last place you'd expect the olinguito to be hiding," said Helgen. Finding a mammal is relatively rare, and finding a carnivore—which are less plentiful than herbivores—is "incredibly rare," according to the study.
That's why the "spectacular" new species is "my most exciting discovery yet," Helgen said at a press conference Thursday in Washington, D.C., where a projected picture of the olinguito's cartoonish face elicited a chorus of awws from the audience.
"It's our pleasure to bring the olinguito out of the fog."
In Search of the Olinguito
Helgen's first hint of a new species emerged in 2003, when he was studying museum specimens of olingos, a related group of tree-living, South American carnivores whose family tree is still unknown. He noticed that some of the museum specimens looked different from the others—these strange individuals were smaller overall, with tinier teeth and longer, denser coats.
While at Chicago's Field Museum, "I pulled out this drawer, and there were these skins of carnivores like I'd never seen before. They were these rich, red skins with flowing fur," recalled Helgen, who is also a National Geographic emerging explorer.
Notes that accompanied the odd specimens showed that they'd been collected decades ago in the northern Andes, at elevations between 5,000 and 9,000 feet (about 1,500 to 2,700 meters)—much higher than olingos are known to live, according to the study, published August 15 in the journal ZooKeys.
This meant there was an unidentified species out there—and sparked a ten-year search for a new species. In 2006, Helgen and Roland Kays, director of the Biodiversity and Earth Observation Lab at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, set out to find the critter in the wild. (Also see "Pictures: 'Scruffy' New Carnivorous Mammal Found.")
With the help of Ecuadorian zoologist Miguel Pinto, the team pinpointed their search in western Ecuador's Otanga Cloud Forest Preserve.
On their first night, while traipsing through wet, thick vegetation, the frogs and crickets singing, the team heard the stirrings of animals up in trees. Staring back at them was a kinkajou, a porcupine, and then, "the animal in the headlight was an olinguito," Helgen said.
They found several olinguitos on that trip, and even more on subsequent journeys in other parts of the Andes. Later genetic analysis revealed that olinguitos are not only very different from olingos, but also that there are four subspecies of the olinguito throughout its range.
Even though the olinguito has a fancy new name, it's been among us for a while—people have been living near olinguitos for centuries, and specimens of the animal, though misidentified, have been in museums for more than a hundred years, Helgen noted.
An olinguito misidentified as an olingo even lived in U.S. zoos in the 1960s and 1970s, moving frequently because—not surprisingly—the animal wouldn't breed with olingos, Helgen said.
And it looks like the olinguito will live on in the foreseeable future: "Hearteningly, it's not an extremely endangered species," Helgen said.
There are probably thousands widespread in protected mountain habitats of Colombia and Ecuador.
But that doesn't mean there aren't any threats: An estimated 42 percent of the olinguito's habitat has already been converted to agriculture or human settlements, according to the researchers, and deforestation is always a problem.