Photograph by Mark Gurney, Smithsonian Institution
Published August 15, 2013
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.
If it's a carnivore that eats mostly plants, wouldn't it be an omnivore? I get that it's in the order Carnivora, but wouldn't it still be an omnivore?
A very interesting discovery, but this will lead to their capture to show in public.....animal related organizations should have a policy of heavy fine for their illegal poaching.
Call me a pessimistic, but this is "great news" for the fur coat lovers, for the trophy seekers and for the poachers. I bet they'll be hunted them down until the verge of extinction now that they've been discovered.
what bull**** is this u say its a carnivore but it eats plants isnt that a herbivore people of national geographic get it straight please cause u really disappoint me right now
As i see this report , i could think that maybe some animals which we have not found yet have been extinct
i hope they find lots of new species and maybe a few that haven't been seen for a while-
interesting it was found in tree's -i live in lantana florida and was in downtown lake worth last night where by the library they have some amazing banyan tree's -i have been looking into the history of the area and found that it is land part of the jaega
The Jaega (also Jega, Xega, Jaece, Geiga, Jobe) were a tribe of Native Americans living along the coast of present-day Martin County and Palm Beach County, Florida
at the time of initial European contact, and until sometime in the 18th
century. Little is known of the origins of the Jaegas, but they may
have been a tribe of the Ais people, who occupied the coast to their north.(still don't understand why we can't have casino's when it's indian land
now my question is if all of Florida was a swamp pretty and the land occupied by water that the tribes would live in the trees as they would not live on the ground because of swamp predators and if this is the case they would have had almost tree houses and used runs between the trees so would you find old markings and artifacts in the trees and if thats the case they would have had groups of tree houses -i use this as a reference but like the ewoks in starwars.
so they would look down from the trees to hunt
which brings me to my next point that i have made before that surly it's impossible to map a country from the ground or sea you have to be above it to map the whole outline you couldn't do it so how on the old maps did they map the country and land air flight has not been around that long and maps predate alot of modern technology
i was just trying to get another perspective because the townhouse where i rent from above would look like a grey u shape with a line in it a blue rectangle(the pool) then a grey rectangle(roof of the club house) and green (for grass)-the reason being that if you wished to communicate with satellites or UFO's LOL you would use designs that could be seen from above -
like crop circles they may be man made who knows but to communicate information that could be picked up by satellites or planes you would do it from the ground or on roof tops or an organization could build in certain formations that would be recognized
just quickly great story of lantana airport or palm beach county airport now was a experimentally facility for the airforce in the past after a u boat beached off palm beach in the 1940's-i never knew they got that close to the usa
The Wikipedia has these little guys categorized at omnivores, not carnivores. They sure are cute little guys.
and now because all journalist have included "teddy bear" in its description, the oblinguito will have another threat from poacher's in the exotic pet trade. I wish there would be some toning down of sensationalizing the "cuteness" of these animals with adjectives like "fuzzy" and teddy bear like. This sprakes interest in the exotic animal trade and motivates poachers.
AAAWWW!! I want one of those cute little olinguitos! I wonder how they act around humans. Are they friendly?
This is definitely an interesting find. But how is the olinguito classified as Carnivore even though the animal only eats plants? Shouldn't it be an herbivore?
I think that they should start protecting the habitat of the Olinguito because then every zoo will want one and also every hunter will want one hanging in their wall. I really hope they won´t let the Olinguito get extinct and protect it´s species.
This is way humans need to stop destroying habitats for development and start searching for new species before they are gone for good.
@Ionescu Emanuel so true. thats one of the problems when finding new furry animals - they'll just get hunted down for trophies or coats and soon they wont be alive anymore..
@Jonas Fais What the article is saying is that it has, like the Giant Panda, a mainly vegetarian diet, but its digestive system is more likened to that of a carnivore. That is why the Giant Panda is so inert, because it doesn't get the right protein or energy from its bamboo diet.
@Prajakta Kulkarni Thanks for the question Prajakta! I actually had the same one. The answer is that the olinguito is part of the order Carnivora, so it's called a carnivore because of its his family tree but not necessarily because it eats meat (though more research needs to be done on its diet). Another example is the giant pandas, also a plant-eating member of Carnivora.
Feed the World
How do we feed nine billion people by 2050, and how do we do so sustainably?
We've made our magazine's best stories about the future of food available in a free iPad app.
Latest From Nat Geo
These cooing Casanovas use showstopping plumage to court females and fend off rivals.
Meet a trapper who keeps Florida's streets, sewers, and Kennedy Space Center alligator free.