New Carnivore Species Discovered in South America

The new species is catalogued under the family Procynidae. The Olinguito is similar to its close relative, the Olingo (Bassaricyon Gabbii), but is smaller and has a longer and denser coat. Aside from the Olingo, it also has close ties to raccoons, coatis, and kinkajous.

The animal has similar features as that of a cat and raccoon. It weighs around 2 pounds, has large eyes and woolly orange-brown fur. It is native to Colombia and Ecuador, living in cloud forests. It’s diet mainly consists of fruits, rarely leaves its environment in the trees and is active at night. It also has one baby at a time.

The olinguito has been featured in museums and zoos before but has escaped detection as a new carnivore species. It was only made evident that it is a new species when DNA testing and review of historic field data of Olingos exposed the existence of the Olinguito. It took another ten years for the discovery to be made official.

Observed in the wild, tucked away in museum collections, and even exhibited in zoos around the world–there is one mysterious creature that has been a victim of mistaken identity for more than 100 years. A team of Smithsonian scientists, however, uncovered overlooked museum specimens of this remarkable animal, which took them on a journey from museum cabinets in Chicago to cloud forests in South America to genetics labs in Washington, D.C. The result: the olinguito (Bassaricyon neblina)–the first carnivore species to be discovered in the Western Hemisphere in 35 years.

The olinguito (oh-lin-GHEE-toe) looks like a cross between a house cat and a teddy bear. It is actually the latest scientifically documented member of the family Procyonidae, which it shares with raccoons, coatis, kinkajous and olingos. The 2-pound olinguito, with its large eyes and woolly orange-brown fur, is native to the cloud forests of Colombia and Ecuador, as its scientific name, “neblina” (Spanish for “fog”), hints. In addition to being the latest described member of its family, another distinction the olinguito holds is that it is the newest species in the order Carnivora–an incredibly rare discovery in the 21st century.

Discovering a new species of carnivore, however, does not happen overnight. This one 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. The 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 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. This information, however, was coming from overlooked olinguito specimens collected in the early 20th century. The question Helgen and his team wanted to answer next was: Does the olinguito still exist in the wild?

In addition to body features and behavior, the team made special note of the olinguito’s cloud forest Andean habitat, which is under heavy pressure of human development. The team estimated that 42 percent of historic olinguito habitat has already been converted to agriculture or urban areas.

While the olinguito is new to science, it is not a stranger to people. People have been living in or near the olinguito’s cloud forest world for thousands of years. And while misidentified, specimens have been in museums for more than 100 years, and at least one olinguito from Colombia was exhibited in several zoos in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s. There were even several occasions during the past century when the olinguito came close to being discovered but was not. In 1920, a zoologist in New York thought an olinguito museum specimen was so unusual that it might be a new species, but he never followed through in publishing the discovery.

Source | Quantum Day

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