With its large brown eyes, fluffy red-orange hair and bushy tail, the Olinguito could easily be mistaken for a stuffed teddy bear. But this cute as a button mammal that belongs to the raccoon family is very much alive and extremely precious - That's because it is the first new carnivore to be 'discovered' in the western hemisphere in over three decades.
According to Kristofer Helgen, the curator of mammals at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, finding a new mammal species is rare to begin with, but finding a carnivore is extremely so, thanks to the fact that Carnivora is the most well-researched order in the animal kingdom.
The irony is that while it has been recently 'discovered', the Olinguito has been encountered many times prior to this. However, It has always been misidentified as a member of the Olingos, which look similar except that that are larger, less furry and have longer faces than the Olinguitos that measure 2.5 feet from nose to tail and weigh a mere two pounds.
The suspicion that the two may belong to different species began a decade ago in 2003, when Helgen was conducting research on some Olingo specimens at the museum. He noticed that some of the fossils appeared different - They had tinier teeth and longer red skinned coats with flowing fur. Intrigued, he dug deeper and discovered that the smaller specimens had been brought in from the northern Andes and lived about 5,000 - 9,000 feet above sea level - much higher that the normal Olingo habitats.
In 2006, the researcher teamed up with Ecuador zoologist Miguel Pinto and set off to the South American mountain forests to seek out these cute mammals in their natural habitat. He was not disappointed. The very first night the team went searching in the fog cloaked forests, they spotted a live Olinguito - A moment that Helgen says was mixed with sheer elation, incredible excitement and almost a sense of disbelief at the fact that everyone, including the locals, had missed this new species despite it being in front of their eyes the entire time.
Over the course of their trip, the researchers discovered that the animals found only in the higher elevation habitats in Columbia and Ecuador, feed on fruits, insects and nectar. Largely nocturnal, they live on trees and rarely come down, instead preferring to get around by jumping from one tree to the next. Helgen also discovered that there are four subspecies that live in various sections of the Andes - While they vary slightly in size, their main distinguishing feature is the color of their fur that ranges from red to brown and even, orange.
While Helgen is being credited with 'discovering' the Olinguito, researchers say the animal has been evolving as an independent species for the last 3-4 million years. In fact what's amazing is that in the USA there was one that lived in the public eye for many years. Brought from the mountains of Columbia in 1967, she made her rounds between the Louisville Zoo, Smithsonian's National Zoo and even, New York's Bronx Zoo. The hilarious part is that she was moved to different homes because animal experts were trying to get her to breed with the Olingos that she was housed with. The Olinguito of course turned up her nose at all of them till the day she died, not because she was fussy, but because they were just not her 'type' - literally!
Resources: CNN.com, news.nationalgeographic.com