It rivals both teddy bears and kittens for cuteness, and until recently this animal's existence was not known to those beyond its habitat high in the Andes.
But the newly discovered olinguito has scientists cooing as this previously unknown member of the raccoon family is revealed to have been in plain sight all along, doing its thing in the cloud forests of Ecuador and Colombia.
The Smithsonian researchers who figured out that the adorable furry creature exists heralded the find as yet more proof that European science has catalogued but a fraction of the world’s wonders.
“The discovery of the olinguito shows us that the world is not yet completely explored, its most basic secrets not yet revealed,” said Kristofer Helgen, curator of mammals at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and a leader of the team that reported the discovery.
“If new carnivores can still be found, what other surprises await us?” she said in a statement. “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.”
For years the olinguito was mistaken for the olingo, even as it was exhibited in zoos, curated in museums and encouraged to mate with its non-kin, the Smithsonian said in a release chronicling the journey toward awareness of the existence of Bassaricyon neblina.
What the research team members found when they ventured into the field to locate the animal in its habitat was a doe-eyed creature with orange-brown fur that inhabits the cloud forests of Colombia and Ecuador. It is mostly active during the night hours, the Smithsonian said, eats mainly fruit and sticks to the treetops. It also does not have a litter, as many small mammals do, but reproduces one baby at a time. It weighs in at a mere two pounds. It was the time in 35 years that a heretofore unknown carniverous mammal has been discovered.
The habitat of the olinguito (which means “little olingo” in Spanish) is under siege from human development, the researchers warned, estimating that 42 percent of the animal’s cloud-forest habitat is being farmed or urbanized.
“The cloud forests of the Andes are a world unto themselves, filled with many species found nowhere else, many of them threatened or endangered,” Helgen said. “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.”