Monday, September 16, 2013

OLINGUITOS

A few weeks ago, I was shocked to learn that a new mammal species had been discovered!  This hadn't happened for 35 years, so it was a big deal.  The new mammal is called olinguito, which means "little olingo."  Its scientific name is Bassaricyon neblina, and it is part of the raccoon family.

Photo by Mark Guerney

Okay, well, I have to admit that knowing olinguito means "little olingo" didn't tell me much because I had never heard of an olingo.  But it turns out an olingo is a South American type of raccoon with brown fur and no stripes on its tail.  The olingo is related to the kinkajou, but I don't know much about that animal either.




Anyway, when the olinguito was discovered, it wasn't like nobody had ever seen one before.  People had seen them, but they just thought they were small olingos.  There even used to be a female olinguito in a zoo in the U.S., and the zoo people kept trying to get her to mate with male olingos, but she would never do it.  Now they know it was because she was a whole different species.

SmithsonianMag

So this man named Kristofer Helgen, who is the curator of mammals at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, started studying some specimens in storage at The Field Museum in Chicago, and he used DNA testing to prove that the olinguito is a whole different species than the olingo.  He and some of his colleagues went to South America and actually saw some olinguitos living in the cloud forests of the Andes.  Olinguitos live at higher altitudes than olingos do, which is another thing that shows they are a different species.


Finally, Kristofer Helgen and olingo expert Roland Kays of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences published their findings in a journal called ZooKeys.  Mr. Helgen said that the olinguito is "in museums, it's been in zoos, and its DNA had even been sequenced, but no one had connected the pieces and looked close enough to realize, basically, the significance of this remarkable and beautiful animal."

Smithsonian Institution Map

Olinguitos stay in trees all the the time, where they eat fruits, insects, and nectar.  They can jump from one tree to another.  Mother olinguitos only raise one baby at a time.  An adult olinguito is smaller than a house cat or a chihuahua.  It only weighs about 2 pounds and is 2.5 feet long from the tip of its nose to the end of its tail.

Olinguito in La Mesenia Reserve, Colombia
Photo by Gustavo Suarez

Olinguitos are not exactly an endangered species, but about 40% of their range has been deforested, so they could maybe get to be endangered, which would be a bad thing, since they're really kind of cute.

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