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Teddy bear-like carnivorous creature discovered in South America

While the olinguito looks like a wild, tree-climbing teddy bear with a cat’s tail, it’s actually the world’s newest mammalian carnivore. The remarkable discovery—the first mammal carnivore uncovered in the Western Hemisphere since the 1970s—was found in the lush cloud forests of the Andes, a biodiverse region home to a wide-range of species found no-where else. Dubbed the olinguito (Bassaricyon neblina), the new mammal is a member of a little-known, elusive group of mammals—olingos—that are related to raccoons, coatis, and kinkajous. However, according to its description in the journal Zookeys, the olinguito is the most distinct member of its group, separated from other olingos by 3-4 million years (or longer than Homo sapiens have walked the Earth).

“You can tell them apart by looking at almost any feature!” Kristopher Helgen, the lead scientist on the team and Director of Mammals at the Smithsonian Institute told “Olinguitos are smaller than olingos, with longer, softer fur (shorter and harsher in olingos), they are more more colorful (usually reddish-brown or orange-brown in olinguitos, more brown, tan, or gray in olingos), and they have a shorter, bushier tail, smaller ears, and a more rounded face. Olinguitos have larger molars, smaller bones of the ear, and somewhat differently shaped skulls compared to olingos.”

The world's newest species in the mammal order Carnivora: the olinguito. The one was photographed in the wild at Tandayapa Bird Lodge, Ecuador. Photo by: Mark Gurney.
The world’s newest species in the mammal order Carnivora: the olinguito. The one was photographed in the wild at Tandayapa Bird Lodge, Ecuador. Photo by: Mark Gurney.

Olinguitos are also the only one in the family that inhabit high-altitude cloud forests at 5,000 to 9,000 feet above sea level.

It’s not that scientists were wholly unaware of the animal, but simply that for over a century they mixed it up with species of lowland olingos. In fact, the olinguito was even housed at U.S. zoos in the past, but was identified as an olingo. It’s smaller body, distinct shape, and high-altitude habitat was simply not recognized.

Helgen and his research team first noticed distinct differences between the olinguito and its relatives in museum specimens. This discovery led Helgen to try and find living animal in the wild—if they still existed. A video captured by an Ecuadorean zoologist, Miguel Pinto, of a wild olinguito, proved a breakthrough. And soon Helgen, along with Roland Kays, with the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, were on their way to Ecuador.

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