Researchers at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington announced the discovery of a new tree-dwelling carnivorous mammal Thursday.
The olinguito is about two-and-a-half feet long, weighs about two pounds and mostly stays within its habitat. Its teeth and lineage within the animal kingdom suggest that it is a carnivore, though it is described as a 'carnivore by relation' and eats mostly fruit, according to Kristofer Helgen, team leader of the discovery and curator of mammals at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.
"One way to think about 'carnivore by relation' is that if your last name was 'Carnivore' and you became a vegetarian you'd still be called a carnivore," said Helgen at a conference Thursday.
Helgen said his team discovered the olinguito in the mountains of Colombia and Ecuador. According to a Smithsonian press release, it is a member of the family Procyonidae, which includes raccoons, kinkajous and olingos.
The discovery was unintentional: The team's goal was to study how many species of olingos were out in the wild. They discovered a species with smaller, differently shaped teeth and a longer, denser coat. The olinguito resides in the northern Andes Mountains at 5,000 to 9,000 feet above sea level – much higher than the olingo's observed habitat.
Helgen said the last time a new mammalian species was named in 1978, when researchers discovered a Colombian weasel in the same cloud forest region as the onlinguito. He said his team did not come across any knowledge of the species among natives. The olinguito's small frame, the fact that it lives high in trees and is not hunted has allowed it to keep a low profile.
"People are usually most familiar in their world with the animals that are most relevant to their daily lives," said Helgen.
An olinguito apparently made a tour in the U.S. from 1967 to 1976. The animal, named "Ringerl," was believed to be an olingo and was moved from zoo to zoo because it would not mate with the other captive olingos. DNA testing matched samples of Ringerl's cells frozen by before she passed away.
Helgen speculated that other zoos may currently house olingitos that are being mistaken for peculiar olingos. The discovery was published Thursday in ZooKeys.
"The age of discovery is not over," said Helgen. "There's going to be a lot more to come."