For all of modern history, a small, carnivorous South American mammal in the raccoon family has evaded the scientific community. Untold thousands of these red, furry creatures scampered through the trees of the Andean cloud forests, but they did so at night, hidden by dense fog. Nearly two dozen preserved samples—mostly skulls or furs— were mislabeled in museum collections across the United States. There’s even evidence that one individual lived in several American zoos during the 1960s—its keepers were mystified as to why it refused to breed with its peers.
Now, the discovery of the olinguito has solved the mystery. At an announcement today in Washington, D.C., Kristofer Helgen, curator of mammals at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, presented anatomical and DNA evidence that establish the olinguito (pronounced oh-lin-GHEE-toe) as a living species distinct from other known olingos, carnivorous tree-dwelling mammals native to Central and South America. His team’s work, also published today in the journal ZooKeys, represents the first discovery of a new carnivorous mammal species in the American continents in more than three decades.
Although new species of insects and amphibians are discovered fairly regularly, new mammals are rare, and new carnivorous mammals especially rare. The last new carnivorous mammal, a mongoose-like creature native to Madagascar, was uncovered in 2010. The most recent such find in the Western Hemisphere, the Colombian weasel, occurred in 1978. “To find a new carnivore species is a huge event,” said Ricardo Sampaio, a biologist at the National Institute of Amazonian Research in Brazil, who studies South American mammals in the wild and was not involved in the project.
Olinguitos, formally known as Bassaricyon neblina, inhabit the cloud forests of Ecuador and Colombia in the thousands, and the team’s analysis suggests that they are distributed widely enough to exist as four separate subspecies. “This is extremely unusual in carnivores,” Helgen said, in advance of the announcement. “I honestly think that this could be the last time in history that we will turn up this kind of situation—both a new carnivore, and one that’s widespread enough to have multiple kinds.”
Though Helgen has uncovered dozens of unknown mammal species during previous expeditions, in this case, he did not set out to find a new species. Rather, he sought to fully describe the known olingos. But when he began his study in 2003, examining preserved museum specimens, he realized how little scientists knew about olingo diversity. “At the Chicago Field Museum, I pulled out a drawer, and there were these stunning, reddish-brown long-furred skins,” he said. “They stopped me in my tracks—they weren’t like any olingo that had been seen or described anywhere.” The known species of olingo have short, gray fur. Analyzing the teeth and general anatomy of the associated skulls further hinted that the samples might represent a new species. Helgen continued his project with a new goal: Meticulously cataloguing and examining the world’s olingo specimens to determine whether samples from a different species might be hidden among them.
Visits to 18 different museum collections and the examination of roughly 95 percent of the world’s olingo specimens turned up dozens of samples that could have come from the mystery species. Records indicated that these specimens—mostly collected in the early 20th century—had been found at elevations of 5,000 to 9,000 feet above sea level in the Northern Andes, much higher than other olingos are known to inhabit.