Newly Discovered Mammal Solves Decades-Old Zoological Mystery

By Barber, Elizabeth | The Christian Science Monitor, August 15, 2013 | Go to article overview

Newly Discovered Mammal Solves Decades-Old Zoological Mystery


Barber, Elizabeth, The Christian Science Monitor


In 1967, a small, carnivorous South American animal arrived at an American zoo. Called Ringerl, the female animal was assumed to be an olingo, an arboreal mammal that looks like a housecat-raccoon-teddy- bear hybrid, and it was housed with what zookeepers thought were its peers.

But Ringerl was standoffish; it refused to breed with the other olingos, and the zookeepers couldn't understand what was wrong. So, the reluctant animal was sent to other zoos: would it prefer other males? Ringerl refused them all.

Now, it all makes sense. Ringerl, it turns out, was not an olingo after all. In fact, she belonged to a new species announced on Thursday, called the olinguito, the first new carnivorous species to be discovered in the Western Hemisphere in about 35 years.

The announcement, made in Washington D.C., ends the olinguito's decades long evasion of scientific categorization. It also puts a bookend on almost a decade of research and intercontinental travel to establish the new carnivore as distinct from the olingo, in whose company the little animal had hid in plain sight.

"A few new mammals are discovered each year, but these are mainly bats, shrews, and rodents: small animals that can hide pretty well," says Roland Kays, a zoologist at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and an author on the paper. "There aren't nearly as many carnivore discoveries - especially not one as cute as the olinguito."

"It's exciting that the olinguito is finally having its day," he said.

The research began with a hunch: Kristofer Helgen, curator of mammals at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and an author on the paper, had noted that not all olingos looked alike. But no one had ever pinned down whether or not those seemingly rogue outliers might be an altogether different species, says Dr. Kays.

In 2004, Dr. Helgen pulled from the drawers of Chicago's Field Museum samples marked as olingos that had been collected in 1951 in Colombia. But some of the pelts in that collection were red - not the greyish color of olingo fur. And some skulls were smaller than what Helgen expected to see on an olingo.

That launched Helgen into a two-year investigation of olingo samples archived at museums around the world. And in that comparative research, a pattern emerged: those red-colored, smaller animals were not olingos. These were a new species, dubbed the olinguito - Spanish for "little olingo."

In 2006, Kays joined Helgen and C. Miguel Pinto, a zoologist at the American Museum of Natural History and an author on the paper, on a three-week field trip to the Ecuadorian jungle. Did the olinguito still exist in the wild, they wanted to know? And, if so, how long would it take to find a mammal that had, for the entire history of the biological sciences, kept out of sight? …

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