By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer
The National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC houses one of the largest mammal collections in the world. One day, zoologist Kristofer Helgen, the curator of the museum, was working in its storage area when he came across a strange looking set of bones and skin samples. He’s worked with all types of animal remains and can tell them apart like the back of his hand, so the fact that he didn’t recognize this particular set made his heart race with excitement. Could these be the bones of an undiscovered animal?
“It stopped me in my tracks,” said Helgen. “The skins were a rich red color and when I looked at the skulls I didn’t recognize the anatomy. It was different to any similar animal I’d seen, and right away I thought it could be a species new to science.” It turns out he was right! Helgen took the DNA of the unknown skulls and compared it to the DNA of 5 animals that were in the same family. Since he knew where the 5 creatures lived, he estimated that the unknown creature could be found in South America. He was right! Helgen’s discovery is the first new carnivore (meat-eating) species found in the western hemisphere (left half of Earth) in 35 years! Say hello to the olinguito.
“The olinguito is a carnivore – that group of mammals that includes cats, dogs, and bears and their relatives,” he said. “Many of us believed that list was complete, but this is a new carnivore – the first to be found on the American continent for more than three decades.”
This little mammal is roughly a foot long – give or take a couple inches – and lives in the northwest lands of South America. Even though he’s a carnivore, this olinguito still loves to fill his cute little belly with exotic fruits and insects. He likes to spend his time alone in trees, and is really active at night. Isn’t he adorable? The olinguito looks like a cross between a cuddly teddy bear, a friendly cat, and a baby raccoon.
What’s really interesting is that several US zoos displayed the olinguito between 1967 and 1976, but they confused him with his cousin, the olinga! However, at the time, they didn’t have the technology to distinguish one from the other, so they didn’t know that they had made a discovery. “This reminds us that the world is not yet explored and the age of discovery is far from over,” says Helgen. “The olinguito makes us think – what else is out there?”
Images courtesy of Smithsonian.