Nature Ramble

Colombia and Ecuador this week and the discovery of a ‘new’ mammal. Well, the animal has been around for a while, it’s just that we didn’t know it.

It’s rather astounding because the last mammal discovered was 35 years ago, so this event isn’t an everyday occurrence.

Olinguito:

‘Overlooked’ mammal carnivore is major discovery

Scientists in the US have discovered a new animal living in the cloud forests of Colombia and Ecuador.

It has been named olinguito and is the first new species of carnivore to be identified in the Western hemisphere in 35 years.

It has taken more than a decade to identify the mammal, a discovery that scientists say is incredibly rare in the 21st Century.

The credit goes to a team from the Smithsonian Institution.

The trail began when zoologist Kristofer Helgen uncovered some bones and animal skins in storage at a museum in Chicago.

“It stopped me in my tracks,” he told BBC News. “The skins were a rich red colour and when I looked at the skulls I didn’t recognise the anatomy. It was different to any similar animal I’d seen, and right away I thought it could be a species new to science.”

Meet the olinguito and the man who discovered the new mammal species

Dr Helgen is curator of mammals at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC, which houses the largest mammal collection in the world.

More than 600,000 specimens are flat-packed in trays to save space, their bones picked clean by specially bred beetles and stored in boxes alongside their skins.

Many were collected more than a century ago and were often mislabelled or not properly identified. But recent advances in technology have enabled scientists to extract DNA from even the oldest remains.

The 35cm-long (14in) olinguito is the latest addition to the animal family that includes racoons. By comparing DNA samples with the other five known species, Dr Helgen was able to confirm his discovery.

“It’s hard for me to explain how excited I am,” he says.

“The olinguito is a carnivore – that group of mammals that includes cats, dogs and bears and their relatives. Many of us believed that list was complete, but this is a new carnivore – the first to be found on the American continent for more than three decades.”

Dr Helgen has used such mammal collections to identify many other new species, including the world’s biggest bat and the world’s smallest bandicoot. But he says the olinguito is his most significant discovery. Its scientific name is Bassaricyon neblina. The last carnivore to be identified in the Americas was the Colombian Weasel.

But even after identifying the olinguito, a crucial question remained: could they be living in the wild?

“We used clues from the specimens about where they might have come from and to predict what kind of forest we might find them in – and we found it!”

MAP

The olinguito is now known to inhabit a number of protected areas from Central Colombia to western Ecuador. Although it is a carnivore, it eats mainly fruit, comes out at night and lives by itself, producing just one baby at a time.

And scientists now believe an olinguito was exhibited in several zoos in the US between 1967 and 1976. Its keepers mistook it for an olinga – a close relative – and could not understand why it would not breed. It was sent to a number of different zoos but died without being properly identified.

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