The Olinguito: Missing in Plain Sight for Over 100 Years 23-31

Olinguito02Let’s meet this adorable little carnivore whose remains had been in plain sight in museum collections, live specimens kept in zoos, & live ones observed in the wild for over a hundred years. Someone finally noticed something was amiss and so began the journey of properly identifying this former little cryptid.

Look at this adorable little creature. What’s not to love?! Scientists describe it as a cross between a house cat and a teddy bear! (Photo right of a baby olinguito.)

But be careful, this little species is a carnivore and has the teeth to prove it. The olinguito (Bassaricyon neblina) is related through its scientific family tree, Procyonidae, to raccoons, coatis, kinkajous, and olingos. Science tells us the find is also significant because it’s the first species found in the order Carnivora in the 21st century, an order that is rarely updated.

Olinguitos weigh around two pounds as adults and are covered in orange-brown fur. They live in Ecuador and Colombia in the mysterious cloud forests where their large eyes prove very useful.

Olinguito, a new carnivore speciesKristofer Helgen is the curator of mammals at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and he led the team that reported this new find back in 2013. He is still with the museum and is quoted in the Science article saying, “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 Process

The team had set out to investigate olingos in general, studying them in more detail and identifying their ranges in the Andean forests. It was during that close scrutiny that they noticed they had one unidentified species.

Bassaricyon neblina’s teeth and skull were different from the other museum specimens. They were smaller and shaped differently. So was its tail and ears both of which were much smaller than that of other olingos. It finally dawned on them that this new species was smaller overall and had long flowing fur by comparison.

Olinguito03In an article for The Guardian, Helgen said, “If you saw the two animals side by side you would wonder how they could ever be confused.”

Next they consulted old field data compilations and realized this species stayed in one area of the northern Andes Mountains, at an elevation of 5,000 to 9,000 feet.

The next question was are they still alive? Team member Roland Kays took on the job of mounting a field expedition to find out. Kays is the director of the Biodiversity and Earth Observation Lab at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.

OlinguitoMapSure enough they found some living in the wild in the cloud forests of Colombia. But, sadly, they also found that their habitat was in danger due to human encroachment.

Then, to be certain they crossed their T’s and dotted there I’s, the scientists retrieved some DNA from the museum specimens which proved without doubt they had a new species of olingo on their hands.

Now that the Olinguito is “official” the scientists are determined to figure out how to protect it by conserving its habitat. That will be the next phase in this amazing story.

Olinguito01Missing in Plain Sight

I want to share this paragraph with you from the article. You’ve read where I’ve said more or less the same thing repeatedly on this blog about various creatures. Is science just waking up to this phenomenon?

“While the olinguito is new to science, it is not a stranger to people. People have been living in or near the olinguito’s cloud forest world for thousands of years. And while misidentified, specimens have been in museums for more than 100 years, and at least one olinguito from Colombia was exhibited in several zoos in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s. There were even several occasions during the past century when the olinguito came close to being discovered but was not. In 1920, a zoologist in New York thought an olinguito museum specimen was so unusual that it might be a new species, but he never followed through in publishing the discovery.”

Can you believe it? So it begs the question – what else are they missing in plain sight?

I can think of a few things. Bigfoot, possibly Champ the Lake Champlain creature, and maybe even some tigers and wolves in Alaska. It’s really discouraging but it also shows why having regular folks out looking for these creatures is important. If science won’t take them seriously, then let the people searching for these creatures get the evidence we need to convince the scientific community of their existence.

In the meantime, we have this darling little animal now officially known by science so it can be monitored and protected against extinction.

What do you think they’ll find next? Or rediscover?  😉







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