An article published on August 15, 2013 in the ZooKeys Journal announced the discovery of a new carnivore species called olinguito. The newly classified animal is being placed in the family Procyonidae, which includes raccoons, coatis, kinkajous and olingos. This exciting find by Smithsonian scientists also marks the first time in 35 years that a new carnivore species has been discovered on the American continents. The last carnivore identified in the area was the Colombian Weasel which is currently classified as endangered.
Despite being categorized as a new species, the olinguito has been around for a very long time. Viewed in its natural habitat, exhibited in zoos around the world and even stored in museum collections, this adorable creature has been a victim of mistaken identity for nearly 100 years. Scientists now believe that it has been confused with an olinga, a close relative.
Scientists have confirmed that the olinguito is presently the smallest member of the raccoon family, weighing about 2 pounds and measuring 14 inches long with a tail of 13 – 17 inches long. Its home range is located in the cloud forests of the northern Andes Mountains located in Ecuador and Columbia.
The olinguito’s diet consists largely of fruits but may also eat insects and nectar. This fact may cause some confusion as to why it is considered a carnivore since the word invokes images of big cats and dinosaurs. However, the term carnivore is commonly used when referring to the mammalian Order Carnivora that includes both meat and non-meat eaters.
The olinguito is also known to be a solitary animal living amongst the trees and forest canopy. Mostly nocturnal, the females will raise a single baby at one time.
This is a very exciting time for the scientific community and nature buffs as the teddy bear faced olinguito joins the list of other newly discovered animals such as the Hero Shrew and Lesula Monkey. There is still a lot to learn about the olinguito including whether or not it exists in the wild, if it is an endangered species and what impacts deforestation and encroachment have on its survival. According to Kristofer Helgen, curator of mammals at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History and team leader of this new discovery:
The discovery of the olinguito shows us that the world is not yet completely explored, its most basic secrets not yet revealed. 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…The cloud forests of the Andes are a world unto themselves, filled with many species found nowhere else, many of them threatened or endangered. We hope that the olinguito can serve as an ambassador species for the cloud forests of Ecuador and Colombia, to bring the world’s attention to these critical habitats.
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