Scientists make all kinds of amazing discoveries, like the possibility of a new solid or the origins of most cancers. And while they often discover new species of insects, amphibians, or god knows what, new mammals are unusual to discover — especially carnivorous ones (kudos to all the veg-head mammals out there!) But for the first time in the Western Hemisphere in 35 years, that’s just what scientists have found.
Meet the olinguito. He’s pretty cute, right? The Smithsonian Institute describes it a cross between a teddy bear and a house cat, which, if you throw a dash of mole in there, perhaps comes sort of close. Technically, the olinguito is smallest member of the raccoon family, but instead of snacking on your trash, it hangs out in the cloud forests — wet, high-elevation forests — of Colombia and Ecuador, snacking mostly on fruit.
One of the remarkable details about the discovery is the sheer number of olinguitos that managed to escape identification and detection (apparently they read a lot of Harry Potter). Samples in museums across the U.S. were mislabeled, and scientists even think that an olinguito or two were tossed into the habitats of similar creatures in American zoos decades ago, but mystified zookeepers when it wouldn’t mate with any of them. Okay, so the olinguito isn’t particularly progressive yet, but being confused for another species would make me cranky too.
Olinguitos have been confused with olingos (Really? If they’re already being confused, might we not want slightly different names?), which are also tree-dwelling carnivores of the same region. But check out this olingo below — it’s way creepier than the olinguito. It turns out that the two species are cousins and have distinct DNA.
Olinguitos inhabit the South American cloud forests in the thousands, and are numerous and widely distributed enough that they might actually comprise four different subspecies. “This is extremely unusual in carnivores,” said Kristofer Helgen, the Smithsonian’s mammal curator. “I honestly think that this could be the last time in history that we will turn up this kind of situation — both a new carnivore, and one that’s widespread enough to have multiple kinds.”
The last time scientists discovered a new carnivorous mammal was in Madagascar in 2010. They discovered something akin to a mongoose, but unlike the olinguito, the Durrell’s vontsira is extremely rare because of its shrinking and increasingly polluted wetland habitat. It’s kind of terrifying looking, but then again, someone decided that choking it would make for the best picture, so I won’t judge.
Sometimes, scientists discovered that what they thought were multiple species are actually just one, such as with the Psittacosaurus, but when 100,000 species go extinct each year, it’s particularly unusual to discover that there are more, not fewer, of a type of animal out there than we thought. The good news for the olinguito is that they don’t have tusks, blubber, spotted skins, or, to our knowledge, particularly tasty meat. Let’s hope they keep partying in the trees for a good long time.