A team of scientists that includes a professor from N.C. State University has uncovered the first carnivore species to be discovered in the Western Hemisphere in 35 years, officials announced Thursday.
The creature had a mistaken identity for 100 years. But scientists – including Roland Kays, of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and a professor at North Carolina State University – uncovered overlooked museum specimens of this remarkable animal now called "olinguito."
The team's discovery is published in the Aug. 15 issue of the journal ZooKeys.
The olinguito (oh-lin-GHEE-toe) looks like a cross between a house cat and a teddy bear but is actually the latest scientifically documented member of the family Procyonidae, officials said. It is related to raccoons, coatis, kinkajous and olingos. (Olinguito means "little olingo.")
The 2-pound olinguito, with its large eyes and woolly orange-brown fur, is native to the cloud forests of Colombia and Ecuador, as hinted at in its scientific name, "neblina" (Spanish for "fog").
"The discovery of the olinguito shows us that the world is not yet completely explored, its most basic secrets not yet revealed," Kristofer Helgen, curator of mammals at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, said in a statement. "If new carnivores can still be found, what other surprises await us? So many of the world's species are not yet known to science. Documenting them is the first step toward understanding the full richness and diversity of life on Earth."
Discovering the new species of carnivore took a decade, and was not the project's original goal -completing the first comprehensive study of olingos, several species of tree-living carnivores in the genus Bassaricyon, was. Helgen's team wanted to understand how many olingo species should be recognized and how these species are distributed - issues that had long been unclear to scientists. Unexpectedly, the team's close examination of more than 95 percent of the world's olingo specimens in museums, along with new DNA testing and the review of historic field data, revealed existence of the olinguito, a previously undescribed species.
The first clue came from the olinguito's teeth and skull, which were smaller and differently shaped than those of olingos. Examining museum skins revealed that this new species was also smaller overall with a longer and denser coat; field records showed that it occurred in a unique area of the northern Andes Mountains at 5,000 to 9,000 feet above sea level―elevations much higher than the known species of olingo.
The team had a lucky break that started with a camcorder video. With confirmation of the olinguito's existence via a few seconds of grainy video shot by their colleague Miguel Pinto, a zoologist in Ecuador, Helgen and Kays set off on a three-week expedition to find the animal themselves. Working with Pinto, they found olinguitos in a forest on the western slopes of the Andes, and spent their days documenting what they could about the animal - its characteristics and its forest home. They learned that the olinguito is mostly active at night, is mainly a fruit eater, rarely comes out of the trees and has one baby at a time.