Photo via Smithsonian.
An announcement today in Washington, DC, caused a widespread sigh of relief from the scientific community. For over 100 years, there has been a mystery looming over scientists and animal enthusiasts alike surrounding a cute, orange-brown animal that resembles a teddy bear. Today, the mystery was solved with the discovery of the olinguito.
The olinguito, a two-pound carnivorous mammal, swings through the cloud forests of Ecuador and Colombia and shares the family Procyonidae with raccoons, coatis, kinkajous, and olingos. To our knowledge, there are thousands of the 'lil guys.
"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 National Museum of Natural History, said in a press release.
But the olinguito isn't anything new. It's actually been in front of us for a year, residing in the National Zoo in Washington. "It's been kind of hiding in plain sight," Helgen told CBS. The captive mammal, named Ringerl, was mistaken for an olingo, a similar species, but scientists were befuddled when Ringerl wouldn't breed with other olingos. The species has also been exhibited in several zoos throughout the United States in the 60s and 70s, and its specimens have appeared in museums for over a century.
As if the case of mistaken identity isn't crazy enough, this is the first time in 35 years that a carnivorous mammal species has been discovered in the American continents. Sure, there have been numerous discoveries of insects, amphibians, and other animals in recent years, but a carnivorous mammal is a rare find. The most recent carnivorous mammal discovered in the Western Hemisphere was the Colombian weasel back in 1978. Helgen and her team studied the olingos for a decade before noticing that there was something off about a few of the animals. They looked at teeth, skulls, and bodies, and realized that the olinguito's overall size was bigger than the olingo's.
"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 asked. Some of the details are still a little hazy, but the discovery is a big win for science that, with more research, will keep getting bigger.