Olinguito: New Species Once Lived In Zoo, Keepers Wondered Why It Wouldn’t Mate

Olinguito is a new species discovered in the rainforests of South America, but researchers now know the carnivorous mammal actually lived in a zoo undetected for several years.

Scientists from the Smithsonian announced this week that the raccoon-like olinguito was found, the first discovery of a carnivorous mammal in the Western Hemisphere since 1978.

“The discovery of the olinguito shows us that the world is not yet completely explored, its most basic secrets not yet revealed,” Smithsonian zoologist Kristofer M. Helgen, who led a team to find and identify the olinguito, told Smithsonian magazine.

Helgen uncovered the olinguito through research into another species, the olingo, that was living in Central and South America. Through trips to museums to study preserved specimens of the known species, he came to found dozens of examples that didn’t seem to fit.

Helgen joined two other researchers on a trip to Ecuador, where a local hunter shot and captured one of the misfit animals. Genetic analysis found it was a new species that shared 90 percent of its DNA with the olingo, but was a bit smaller (the Spanish suffix -ito means little).

Though it was confirmed through the Ecuadorian hunter, the olinguito was actually hiding right underneath researchers’ noses for years. One of them actually lived at the zoo in Washington, D.C., that’s run by the Smithsonian.

“It’s been kind of hiding in plain sight for a long time,” Helgen said.

The olinguito living at the zoo, which was named Ringerl, was believed to be an olingo. But keepers realized something was wrong when the animal seemed to have no interest in mating with other olingos.

As a result, it was shipped around the country in a sort of zoo dating game effort that didn’t seem to work. The olinguito was sent to zoos Louisville, Tuscon, Salt Lake City, and New York City in a bid to get it to breed.