New Mammal Species Discovered

A small carnivorous mammal in the raccoon family has been discovered to be a unique species. Using DNA analysis, scientists distinguished the new olinguito from olingos. Both eat meat and are native to Central and South America. There is also a close physical resemblance, so for decades it was assumed they were the same species. Olinguitos live in the cloud forests of Ecuador and Colombia and number in the thousands. This is extremely good news, because lately discoveries of new species come with some disturbing information. Due to global trends such as habitat destruction and climate change impacts, many ‘new’ species are in such low numbers that they may be in danger of extinction.

Very fortunately, this is not the case for the olinguitos.

Some detective work was necessary to tease out why preserved olinguito samples in American museums did not resemble olingos, and thus it was determined that they had been mislabelled. In fact, an olinguito may have lived in an American zoo in the 1960s under the assumption it was an olingo. One clue about its identity was that it refused to mate with any olingos. In hindsight, it is clear that mating with a different species would have been unacceptable to the lone olinguito.

18 different museums were visited and many unusual olingos samples were observed. Eventually, the mysterious oddballs were determined not to be olingos. To confirm their suspicions that there was a separate species alive somewhere, scientists ventured to the cloud forests looking for their nocturnal ‘ghost’ species. Once there, they did see a few moving through the dark cloud forests. However, it took shooting one in order to get close enough to identify it. Then they knew their hunch was correct and they had identified a separate species.

“I was filled with disbelief. This journey, which started with some skins and skulls
in an American museum, had taken me to a point where I was standing in a cloudy, wet rainforest and seeing a very real animal,” explained Kristofer Helgen. (Source: Smithsonian)

Solving the anonymous mammal case took several years of study.

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