By Jenny McGlone
Chapel Hill, NC, United States
Have you ever wondered what would happen if a raccoon had babies with a teddy bear? Of course, this is impossible, but the discovery of a new mammal species in the cloud forests of the Andes Mountains gives us a hint of what a teddy-raccoon would look like. This animal is called the olinguito, and it is the first new species of carnivore to be found in the Western Hemisphere in the past 35 years.
It turns out that the olinguito has been hiding in plain sight for over 100 years, passing as its relatives, the olingo and kinkajou. In fact, an olinguito named Ringerl lived in various zoos in the US from 1967 to 1976. Zoo officials thought something was strange when she refused to breed with other olingos. The olinguito’s larger relatives average two to seven pounds. In contrast, the olinguito rarely weighs more than two pounds. It was given its name because in Spanish the suffix -ito means small or cute.
Another distinction of the new species is that it lives at higher elevations than its larger relatives. The olingo’s preferred habitat is the tree canopy of cloud forests under 6,500 feet, whereas the olinguito can be found at 9,000 feet. Both species thrive in the cloud forest, where they live in the branches of tall trees eating figs, insects, and plant nectar. Experts doubt that these animals ever walk on the ground, because they are so well suited to their cloud-forest environment. There are estimated to be 2,000 olinguitos in existence today, so they are not considered endangered.
The scientist who is credited with making this discovery, Kristofer Helgen, began by noticing the unusual features of a pelt labeled olingo that he found at Chicago’s Field Museum in 2003. Dr. Helgen, who worked at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, noted that the specimen’s fur color, length, teeth, and skull differed from his expectations. He began to suspect that these creatures had been misidentified, so he conducted a genetic comparison that confirmed his suspicions.
His next move was to assemble a team of researchers and zoologists. In 2006, this team traveled to the Otonga Nature Reserve in Ecuador. On their first night, they saw a live olinguito jumping through the foliage. Confirming this discovery took another seven years as Dr Helgen traveled to 18 museums, examining 95 percent of the world’s olingo specimens. Because of his persistence, the world now has an adorable — and correctly labeled — animal to admire.
Have a suggestion for this story? We’d love for you to submit it!
- How much higher an elevation can the olinguito live than then olingo?
- What fraction of the oliguito’s weight is the olingo? Do you think it would be reasonable a zoologist would recognize that difference?
- Draw two circles, one representing the size of a olingo and one representing the size of an oliguito. Compare the sizes.
- If the olingo’s ratio is two males to every three females, how many females will there be when you count 193 males?
If you search online for information about the olinguito, you’ll discover several tourism sites selling tours to see this animal. Does this seem exploitive? Or just a business opportunity? What is your opinion?
- Story on the discovery of the olinguito
- Video of an olinguito
- Facts about the olinguito
- Ecuadorian website supporting the Otonga Nature Reserve
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