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What is an olinguito?

Part of our series on interesting animals in South America.

It’s not surprising when scientists discover a new critter that creeps and crawls. In fact, it’s relatively common—in 2012 alone nearly 20,000 new species were discovered and categorized. Roughly 15,000 of these were invertebrates and insects. What isn’t so common is coming across an unidentified mammal. And what’s even stranger is stumbling across a new animal not deep inthe jungle or isolated on an island, but inside the Chicago Field Museum.

Introducing the olinguito.

The olinguito, a small raccoon-like creature, is the first carnivorous mammal to be discovered in the Americas for 35 years. For decades it was hiding in plain sight. Skins and skulls of the olinguito are stored in museum collections across the United States and a live olinguito may have lived in an American zoo in the 1960s, bewildering keepers with its refusal to mate. It was a case of mistaken identity.

As it turns out, an olinguito (oh-lin-GHEE-toe) looks very similar to an olingo, a known species native to the cloud forests of South America, especially Ecuador and Colombia. Or at least similar enough to be misidentified for decades. It wasn’t until 2003 when Kristofer Helgen, curator of mammals at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, decided to further study the olingo that truth came out.

“It stopped me in my tracks," Helgen said, as quoted by news sources. "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."

To confirm his suspicions, Helgen teamed up with other experts in the field and set off to Ecuador’s Otango Reserve in 2006. They spent the next several years exploring the cloud forests of northern South America and observing the tree-dwelling creatures. And as it turns out, Helgen’s observations were correct: the olinguito and the olingo are two different species, sharing only 90 percent of their DNA. In comparison, humans share 99 percent of our DNA with chimpanzees. The Smithsonian Institute officially announced the finding in mid 2013.

So what do we now know about the olinguito? Well other than being rather cute, we know the critter grows to be about 2.5 feet long and weighs around 2 pounds, making it the smallest member of the raccoon family (the –ito suffix in Spanish denotes small). It is mainly active at night and lives high in South America’s cloud forests, typically at slightly higher altitudes than its sister species the olingo, rarely coming down out of the canopy. They eat insects, but subsist mainly on fruit.

Though experts aren’t sure how many olinguitos exist in the while, it’s believed that 42 percent of their habitat has already been deforested, a risk shared by many South American species.

Thanks to Mark Gurney via Smithsonian for the title image of this blog.

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