For the first time in 35 years, a team of researchers has discovered a new species of mammal in the Americas, named the olinguito. Classified as the smallest member of the raccoon family, the Bassaricyon Neblina (as it's called in binomial nomenclature) is typically reddish-brown, furry, and super cute.
At about 2 pounds and around 2 feet long, the olinguito is the cutest little animal since the red panda, but might be more accurately described as a mix between a house cat and a teddy bear. Primarily frugivores, olinguitos also consume insects, and are generally active at night.
What's interesting about the olinguito and its newly discovered existence is that it was essentially hiding in plain sight. Actually, until researchers noticed the pointed differences between the two, it was mistaken for its similar cousin, the olingo. The misclassified animal even made the rounds on the national zoo circuit at one point, moonlighting at zoos across the country in an effort to breed more olingos (which unsurprisingly failed).
Untamed Science produced an adorable video about the critter, featured below:
The leader of the research team, Dr. Kristopher Helgen, was originally focused on expanding the existing knowledge on olingos when he noticed discrepancies in fur color, length, and anatomy between some specimens. This led him to dig further and realize that the overwhelming majority of specimens belonging to this unknown species came from the biologically-diverse forested region of the Northern Andes known as a cloud forest.
In fact, its existence in this foggy, high-altitude environment is one of the reasons why it was so difficult to confirm that the olinguito is a species distinct from similar animals such as the kinkajou and the olingo. As its name implies, the cloud forest is covered in clouds and mist, and the nocturnal olinguito is tree dwelling and hesitant to come below the cloud cover, making it rather hard to spot. Add to this the difficulty of getting to such a remote locale in the first place, and it's easily understandable why it took 10 years of diligence to confirm the olinguito's existence. Furthermore, the alarming deforestation rate of South America's cloud forests presents perhaps the greatest challenge, as the rapid disappearance of its habitat would also spell the disappearance of the olinguito itself.
Luckily for the cute-and-furry-critterphile crowd, Dr. Helgen, the curator of mammals at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, has spotted the creature in time and by announcing its existence, has brought the region’s significance back into the limelight. The discovery of new mammals is extremely rare, and while the most recent discovery was in 2010, the last mammal discovered in the Western Hemisphere was the Columbian weasel in 1978 — in the same forests as the olinguito. Hopefully, the excitement surrounding this incredible discovery will lead to more concerted efforts to protect the cloud forests and bring us more cute teddy-bear critters like this one. Or at least provide a boost to sorely needed research into one of the most biodiverse and underexplored regions of our planet.