December 5th, 2014
It’s been seen in the wild and presented in zoos around the world, but yet, a mysterious creature has been victim of mistaken identity for over 100 years!
Going on a journey from dusty museums in Chicago to exuberant forests in South America, a team of researchers led by Kristofer Helgen, from Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, followed the trail of a remarkable animal. The team ended up with the first carnivore species to be discovered in over 30 years. They named it olinguito.
The cute racoon-like animal has large eyes and furry ears, a dense orange-brown fur, and a shorter tail than other similar animals known as olingos. “The discovery of the olinguito shows us that the world is not yet completely explored” said Kristofer Helgen in a statement.
Its discovery was an adventure that lasted 10 years. Curiously, it didn’t start as an adventure, but as a more mundane classification exercise. The purpose was to catalogue and characterise all members of the olingo family, a large tree-living species found in the forests of Ecuador and Colombia.
After many painstaking examinations, Helgen’s team unexpectedly stumbled upon a previously uncategorised species. The initial doubts came from analysing sets of teeth and skulls which didn’t exactly match any other species in the same family. In addition, records showed these animals lived at much higher altitudes than expected.
To solve the mystery, the team headed to Ecuador to find whether these animals still lived in the wild. Working with zoologist Miguel Pinto, they went deep in the forest to find everything they could about the animal’s habitat and lifestyle. They found a shy and reserved olinguito, usually active at night, but still preferring the safety of trees.
Although researchers just found these small furry creatures, their future may not be very bright. “We suggest classifying the olinguito under the IUCN category of Near Threatened”, the authors wrote in an article published in Open Access Journal Zookeys.
Deforestation in particular seems to be a major threat, with 42% of olinguito’s habitat already converted to agriculture. The authors suggested using this newly found animal as a ‘flagship species’ to promote conservation initiatives to benefit not only olinguito, but many other Andean cloud forest species.
Kristofer M. Helgen, C. Miguel Pinto , Roland Kays, Lauren E. Helgen, Mirian T. N. Tsuchiya, Aleta Quinn, Don E. Wilson & Jesús E. Maldonado (2013). Taxonomic revision of the olingos (Bassaricyon), with description of a new species, the Olinguito. Zoo Keys, 324, 1-83 DOI: 10.3897/zookeys.324.5827
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