Olinguito: 'Overlooked' mammal carnivore is major discovery

16.08.2013 18:10

Scientists in the US have discovered a
new animal living in the cloud forests
of Colombia and Ecuador.
It has been named olinguito and is the
first new species of carnivore to be
identified in the Western hemisphere in
35 years.
It has taken more than a decade to
identify the mammal, a discovery that
scientists say is incredibly rare in the
21st Century.
The credit goes to a team from the
Smithsonian Institution.
The trail began when zoologist Kristofer
Helgen uncovered some bones and
animal skins in storage at a museum in
Chicago.
"It stopped me in my tracks," he told
BBC News. "The skins were a rich red
colour and when I looked at the skulls I
didn't recognise the anatomy. It was
different to any similar animal I'd seen,
and right away I thought it could be a
species new to science."
Dr Helgen is curator of mammals at the
National Museum of Natural History in
Washington DC , which houses the largest
mammal collection in the world.
More than 600,000 specimens are flat-
packed in trays to save space, their
bones picked clean by specially bred
beetles and stored in boxes alongside
their skins.
Many were collected more than a
century ago and were often mislabelled
or not properly identified. But recent
advances in technology have enabled
scientists to extract DNA from even the
oldest remains.
The 35cm-long (14in) olinguito is the
latest addition to the animal family that
includes racoons. By comparing DNA
samples with the other five known
species, Dr Helgen was able to confirm
his discovery.
"It's hard for me to explain how excited I
am," he says.
"The olinguito is a carnivore - that group
of mammals that includes cats, dogs and
bears and their relatives. Many of us
believed that list was complete, but this
is a new carnivore - the first to be found
on the American continent for more than
three decades."
Dr Helgen has used such mammal
collections to identify many other new
species, including the world's biggest bat
and the world's smallest bandicoot. But
he says the olinguito is his most
significant discovery. Its scientific name
is Bassaricyon neblina. The last carnivore
to be identified in the Americas was the
Colombian Weasel.
But even after identifying the olinguito, a
crucial question remained: could they be
living in the wild?
"We used clues from the specimens
about where they might have come from
and to predict what kind of forest we
might find them in - and we found it!"
The olinguito is now known to inhabit a
number of protected areas from Central
Colombia to western Ecuador. Although
it is a carnivore, it eats mainly fruit,
comes out at night and lives by itself,
producing just one baby at a time.
And scientists now believe an olinguito
was exhibited in several zoos in the US
between 1967 and 1976. Its keepers
mistook it for an olinga - a close relative
- and could not understand why it would
not breed. It was sent to a number of
different zoos but died without being
properly identified.
Washington's National Zoo had an olinguito
in the 1960s but never identified it as a
separate species
"The vast majority of the discoveries of
new species are made in museum
collections," says Chris Norris, of the Yale
Peabody Museum of Natural History in
Connecticut and president of the Society
for the Preservation of Natural History
Collections.
"Often people working 70 years ago or
more had different ideas of what
constituted a new species - maybe they
didn't recognise things that we would as
being distinct, or they might not have
had access to technologies, such as being
able to extract and sequence DNA."
But there is no central museum database
and scientists have little idea of what
each collection contains. Many
organisations are now putting their
inventories online, and Dr Norris says
that will make research faster and more
accessible.
Another challenge is keeping specimens
in good condition. Many are hundreds of
years old and are prone to moth and
insect infestations.
The oldest surviving collection was
assembled in the 17th Century by John
Tradescant. Its most famous specimen is
a dodo that is now on display at the
Oxford University Museum of Natural
History in the UK.
"But not all of it," says Dr Norris.
"There's just the head and a foot left
because everything else got eaten.
"It's a cautionary tale for anyone
working on museum collections today.
You get to do exciting science but you
have to take care of them or they won't
be there for people to use in the future.
"Our economy is in the middle of a
rough period and spending on museums
sometimes seems difficult to justify when
you look for example at some of the
more shiny or spectacular scientific tools
that are out there. But it's important to
think of these things, not as rather
bizarre collections of dried skins and
pickled bats in jars and drawers full of
snails, but as a research tool in the same
way that you might think of a new
telescope or a Large Hadron Collider."
Scientists have catalogued only a fraction
of the planet's lifeforms. New species of
insects, parasitic worms, bacteria and
viruses are discovered on a regular basis,
but new mammals are rare.
"This reminds us that the world is not
yet explored and the age of discovery is
far from over," says Dr Helgen. "The
olinguito makes us think - what else is
out there?"