Credit: Mark Gurney/NBC News
UPDATED Thursday, August 15, 2013 --- 10:52 a.m.
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Researchers are announcing the rare discovery of a new species of mammal.
It's a raccoon-sized creature with a teddy bear face called the olinguito.
A Smithsonian researcher says it lives in the mountainous forests of Ecuador and Columbia where it leaps through the trees at night. It eats fruit and weighs about 2 pounds.
One of them also once lived at the National Zoo in Washington where it was mistaken for a similar animal.
The discovery was announced Thursday.
Copyright 2013: Associated Press
Posted Thursday, August 15, 2013 --- 10:43 a.m.
By Nidhi Subbaraman NBC News
While rooting through some museum drawers and cabinets at the National Museum, a mammal expert at the Smithsonian Zoo noticed that a collection of bones — labeled for a family of small, furry South American mammals called olingos — didn't completely match. These raccoon-like critters, which hail from the Andean forests, hadn't been too widely studied. So the scientist decided to have a closer look.
Indeed, some of the 16 skeletons in the olingo collection were smaller boned, had larger teeth and smaller skulls. That deep-drawer excavation was about 10 years ago. On Thursday, Kristopher Helgen, Curator of Mammals at the Smithsonian National Museum of History, and his fellow scientists announced their discovery.
Why a decade to share the discovery? After Helgen studied the museum specimens, he and a team of ecologists set out into the foggy, fig tree jungle of the Equadorian Andes in the fall of 2006, to confirm his suspicion and look for the living thing.
"We didn't even know if it would be still alive, or if we could find it," Roland Kays, a member of that party, told NBC News.
But on their very first night out into the fig tree jungle near Otonga, they spotted the first living example of this newly-discovered animal. "It was like, 'Cmon scientist guys, you've seen us long enough. Get our name out there,'" Kays said.
The new species — called "Olinguito" — is described as a cross between a house cat and a teddy bear, though said "it has a bit of monkey and raccoon thrown in there too."
"It's certainly the cutest new species described in a long time," Kays, director of the Biodiversity and Earth Observation Lab at North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences said.
Little did Helgen and company know, this little critter has been hiding in plain sight. For years, museum curators, zoo keepers and researchers mistook the olinguitos for their relatives, the known and named olingos.
Unlike the larger olingos, the new species has a smaller head, larger teeth, a blunter snout, and thicker, redder fur.
By their heritage and body type, the olinguitos are included as newest member of the order Carnivora, which includes civets, and cats, and bears, and hyenas. But this branch of the traditionally meat-loving order has has turned frugivore, and now lives off figs and other tree fruit, in addition to probably hunting small birds, lizards, and insects in the canopy.
Though solitary, it probably interacts with porcupines and kinkajous, some of the other night-time forest prowlers, Kays said.
The olinguito discovery, shows just "how special these Andean cloud forests are," Kays said. "There are these amazing frontiers in our world that haven't been explored ... tropical canopies holding these surprises."
In addition to Kristofer Helgen and Roland Kays, the authors of "Taxonomic revision of the olingos (Bassaricyon), with description of a new species, the Olinguito" include C. Miguel Pinto, Lauren Helgen, Mirian Tsuchiya, Aleta Quinn, Don Wilson, and Jesús Maldonado.