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Our World

August 16, 2013

Smithsonian scientists uncover the olinguito

WASHINGTON — After years of sleuthing, Smithsonian scientists have come up with a new species of mammal - the olinguito.

The rust-colored, furry mammal lives in the treetops of the Andes Mountains and weighs two pounds, making it the most petite member of the raccoon family. It dines on fruits such as figs but also enjoys insects and plant nectar, according to the Smithsonian Institution, which announced the discovery Thursday.

The olinguito is the first new species of carnivore found in the Western Hemisphere in 35 years. Finding a new mammal, especially a carnivore, is rare.

The discovery corrects a long-running case of mistaken identity. For decades, scientists thought the mammal was an olingo, a larger member of the raccoon family, or another mammal. The animals had been observed in the wild, tucked away in museum collections and even exhibited at zoos - including the National Zoo.

 No one realized it was a new species until further investigation and DNA testing.

 "In some ways, this animal was hiding in plain sight," said zoologist Roland Kays of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, who helped discover the olinguito. Its pelts and bones were found stashed away in dusty museum drawers, either mislabeled or not labeled at all.

The animal puzzled zookeepers because it oddly refused to breed or mingle with other olingos.

 

"They thought it was just a fussy olingo, but turns out it was completely the wrong species," said Smithsonian zoologist Kristofer Helgen, who spearheaded the sleuthing on the olinguito, which is Spanish for "little olingo."

"Getting a new scientific name out there is really fun," he said. "It's almost like giving birth."

Although olinguitos have been spotted in the cloud forests of the northern Andes - in rain forests at elevations of 5,000 to 9,000 feet above sea level - scientists speculate the animals also might live elsewhere in Central and South America.

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