Thursday, August 29, 2013


    Scientists agree that the immense biodiversity represented in the plants and insects of our planet’s wild places accounts for the bulk of the estimated seven million species unknown to biology.  But the discovery of a new mammal?  It’s a rare happening; but not one altogether impossible.

Olinguito.  Public Domain Photo
    On August 15, a team of Smithsonian scientists, led by Kristofer Helgen, Curator of Mammals at the National Natural History Museum, made an outstanding discovery—the first of its kind in over 35 years.  After extensive investigation, the team announced the discovery of a small carnivorous mammal—the olinguito.

    The olinguito, or Bassaricyon neblito, is related to a small group of tree-dwelling mammals native to the Rainforests of South America, the olingos.  Relatives of the raccoons, coatis, kinkajous, and olingos, olinguitos resemble teddy bears, with large eyes and a thick, earthy brown coat; but are notably smaller than the rest of the olingos, hence their name.

    Species of olingos inhabit the same geographic region—the cloud forests of the Andes mountain range, spanning from Colombia to Ecuador—but habitats vary in elevation.  Just how many species of olingos should be recognized as separate by taxonomy has long been a source of confusion.

    Resolving this issue was the sole purpose of the study conducted by Helgen and his team—until it became apparent that he was on to something bigger.  After examining over 90 percent of the world’s museum-bound olingos, processing DNA sequences, and reviewing historic field data, he was struck with an anomaly.

    Helgen reports that he first noticed a marked inconsistency in certain specimens’ teeth and skulls.  Upon further examination, it was noticed that the undescribed species also grew a longer and thicker coat than other olingos.  This inconsistency, after reviewing field logs, was attributed to a known species of olingos, which were observed at elevations of 5,000 to 9,000 feet in an isolated region of the Andes Mountains in the early 20th century.  The question then was, “does this species still exist in the wild?”

    Days later, Helgen and team departed for South America to research just that.  When they arrived, they quickly located the misrepresented olinguitos.

Hiding in Plain Sight

    After entering a DNA sample from an olinguito in a public database of DNA sequences, Helgen was surprised to find that there was a match. Not only was this new species residing in the trees under a false name, one specimen even traveled the country as a zoo feature under the same guise. 

    City zoos in Louisville, Tucson, Salt Lake City, and even New York City and this nation’s capital, all had records of this misidentified mammal passing through in the 1970s.  The olinguito has been hiding in plain sight.

Almost a New Species

    Hopi Hoekstra, curator of mammals at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University, says that she is not yet willing to dub the olinguito a separate species.  However, she maintains that genetic data will be the last step to describing the olinguito’s existence.  The puzzle is almost complete.

    For those who have lost faith in the developing world’s sense of wilderness, the emergence of the olinguito serves as a refreshing reminder that there are still large portions of our world not thoroughly studied and understood.  Only in furthering our knowledge of biology and biodiversity can we take further measures to protect what is still here.  The olinguito, for instance, occupies a habitat on the fringe of human occupation, and is threatened by further habitat encroachment.  With any luck, this marked development in science will help to protect the olinguito and its unique habitat.  

Originally published in the Rural Virginian

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