Smithsonian Announces Adorable New Mammal, Olinguito

Scientists at the Smithsonian announced the discovery of a new mammal species Thursday.

According to Kristofer Helgen, curator of mammals at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, the olinguito (Bassaricyon neblina) is the first mammalian carnivore species to be newly identified in the Americas in 35 years.

Researchers believe the olinguito — which is described as a cross between a house cat and a teddy bear, or “teddycat,” — should be considered the smallest living member of the raccoon family. The olinguito belongs to the carnivora order of the raccoon family. The animal is about 2.5 feet from the tip of the nose to the tip of the tail.

The animal had been seen by humans before, but that it was a “case of mistaken identity,” Helgen said.

“It was in museums, it’s been in zoos, and its DNA had even been sequenced, but no one had connected the pieces and looked close enough to realize, basically, the significance of this remarkable and this beautiful animal,” Helgen said.

Scientists previously believed the olinguito was a member of its sister species, the olingos. Helgen said olingos have longer faces and are larger and less furry than the newly-discovered olinguito.

The search for the olinguito began in 2003, when Helgen saw a drawer full of skins and skulls he was unfamiliar with at the Chicago Field Museum. The records indicated that the specimens had been found in the northern Andes, about 5,000 to 9,000 feet above sea level. Helgen and his colleagues worked with Miguel Pinto, a zoologist in Ecuador, who had shot video of the animal. In 2006, Helgen’s team found the olinguito.

Helgen said of the discovery that he felt “sheer elation, just incredible excitement but at the same time almost disbelief. This animal had been missed by everyone.”

That’s because the olinguito tends to stay in the trees and lives in misty, high-elevation areas in Colombia and Ecuador. Helgen said there are four subspecies of olinguito in different colors and size in various parts of the Andes.

The last mammal species to be discovered in the Americas was a small weasel from the Peruvian Andes in 2000. The cuscomys ashaninka is a tree rat the size of a domestic cat. The name is a reference to the nearby city of Cusco and the indigineous people of the area, the Ashaninka.

“It shows us that there’s a long way to go to exploring the whole world, but especially maybe these cloud forests,” Helgen said.

What do you think of the olinguito?

[Photo credit: Smithsonian Museum/Mark Gurney]