Say hello to the olinguito, the newest known mammal

Ringeral, an olinguito thought for years to be an olingo, was moved around in zoos across the US, in continual failed attempts to mate her with olingos. But she never wanted to mate, and this discovery helps her express what she’s known all along: that she won’t mate with an olingo because she’s not the same species. Described as resembling a small cat with a bear-like face, the olinguito is the first discovery of its kind that has taken place in the Americas region in 35 years.

The olinguito was shown in many zoos in the US during the 1960s and 1970s, but this entire time people thought they were displaying the olingo. While these two species carry similarities, the olinguito and the olingo display notable physical differences, such as their fur and face shape. Scientists and researchers have remarked these differences before, but it never led to any extensive research until recently. The discovery was confirmed through an in-depth study performed by Dr. Kristofer Helgen, curator of mammals at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and his team.

Dr. Helgen and his team discovered the new Bassaricyon species after a ten-year mission to actually find out more about the olingo species. After examining nearly all of the olingo specimens in museums across the world, testing DNA samples, and reviewing historical date, the team was able to clearly differentiate that there were two creatures being named “olingos” and announced that a new mammal had been discovered.

From the extensive amount of research, here are some of the main differences that led to their conclusion: 

  1. Teeth and skull: Helgen and his team first noticed that the olinguito’s teeth and skulls were smaller and shaped differently than those of the olingo.
  2. Size and coat: The olinguito’s orange-brown fur is longer and denser than the fur of the olingo, probably due to its colder, mountainous habitat; and it is generally smaller than the olingo, weighing about two pounds.
  3. Habitat: After reading some field notes, the team decided to take a trip to the northern Andes Mountains. The olinguito was spotted here in the dense, foggy forests, at about 5000 to 9000 feet above sea level; a height not normally considered olingo habitat.

Not much is known yet about the olinguito, but initial observations portray that it is a carnivorous mammal that also eats fruit, is active at night, rarely leaves the trees where it lives, and has one offspring at a time.

In the press release from the Smithsonian Newsdesk, Kristofer Helgen mentions that this discovery proves that the world is not completely discovered. He states, “If new carnivores can still be found, what other surprises await us? So many of the world’s species are not yet known to science. Documenting them is the first step toward understanding the full richness and diversity of life on Earth.” An amazing discovery, this case of mistaken identity has a happy ending and reminds us the nature will always have something new to reveal. 

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