Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

New species of carnivore looks like a cross between a house cat and a teddy bear

Date:
August 15, 2013
Source:
Smithsonian Institute
Summary:
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 American continents in 35 years.

The olinguito (Bassaricyon neblina) is the first carnivore species to be discovered in the Western Hemisphere in 35 years.
Credit: Mark Gurney; CC-BY 3.0

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 American continents in 35 years.

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. 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.

"The discovery of the olinguito shows us that the world is not yet completely explored, its most basic secrets not yet revealed," said Kristofer Helgen, curator of mammals at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History and leader of the team reporting the new discovery. "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 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. 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 DNA testing and the review of historic field data, revealed existence of the olinguito, a previously undescribed species.

The first clue came to Helgen 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?

To answer that question, Helgen called on Roland Kays, director of the Biodiversity and Earth Observation Lab at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, to help organize a field expedition.

"The data from the old specimens gave us an idea of where to look, but it still seemed like a shot in the dark," Kays said. "But these Andean forests are so amazing that even if we didn't find the animal we were looking for, I knew our team would discover something cool along the way."

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. Because the olinguito was new to science, it was imperative for the scientists to record every aspect of the animal. 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.

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.

"The cloud forests of the Andes are a world unto themselves, filled with many species found nowhere else, many of them threatened or endangered," Helgen said. "We hope that the olinguito can serve as an ambassador species for the cloud forests of Ecuador and Colombia, to bring the world's attention to these critical habitats."

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.

Giving the olinguito its scientific name is just the beginning. "This is the first step," Helgen said. "Proving that a species exists and giving it a name is where everything starts. This is a beautiful animal, but we know so little about it. How many countries does it live in? What else can we learn about its behavior? What do we need to do to ensure its conservation?" Helgen is already planning his next mission into the clouds.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Smithsonian Institute. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Kristofer M. Helgen, Miguel Pinto, Roland Kays, Lauren Helgen, Mirian Tsuchiya, Aleta Quinn, Don Wilson, Jesus Maldonado. Taxonomic revision of the olingos (Bassaricyon), with description of a new species, the Olinguito. ZooKeys, 2013; 324: 1 DOI: 10.3897/zookeys.324.5827

Cite This Page:

Smithsonian Institute. "New species of carnivore looks like a cross between a house cat and a teddy bear." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 15 August 2013. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/08/130815143101.htm>.
Smithsonian Institute. (2013, August 15). New species of carnivore looks like a cross between a house cat and a teddy bear. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 19, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/08/130815143101.htm
Smithsonian Institute. "New species of carnivore looks like a cross between a house cat and a teddy bear." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/08/130815143101.htm (accessed September 19, 2014).

Share This



More Plants & Animals News

Friday, September 19, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Chocolate Museum Opens in Brussels

Chocolate Museum Opens in Brussels

AFP (Sep. 19, 2014) Considered a "national heritage" in Belgium, chocolate now has a new museum in Brussels. In a former chocolate factory, visitors to the permanent exhibition spaces, workshops and tastings can discover derivatives of the cocoa bean. Duration: 01:00 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Could Grief Affect The Immune Systems Of Senior Citizens?

Could Grief Affect The Immune Systems Of Senior Citizens?

Newsy (Sep. 19, 2014) The study found elderly people are much more likely to become susceptible to infection than younger adults going though a similar situation. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Jury Delivers Verdict in Salmonella Trial

Jury Delivers Verdict in Salmonella Trial

AP (Sep. 19, 2014) A federal jury has convicted three people in connection with an outbreak of salmonella poisoning five years ago that sickened hundreds of people and was linked to a number of deaths. (Sept. 19) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Raw: Elephant Undergoes Surgery in Tbilisi Zoo

Raw: Elephant Undergoes Surgery in Tbilisi Zoo

AP (Sep. 18, 2014) Grand the elephant has successfully undergone surgery to remove a portion of infected tusk at Tbilisi Zoo in Georgia. British veterinary surgeons used an electric drill to extract the infected piece. (Sept. 18) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:
from the past week

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins