Smithsonian Announces Discovery of New Mammal

Such a discovery in the 21st century is incredibly rare, scientists say

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A team led by Smithsonian scientist Kristofer Helgen spent 10 years examining hundreds of museum specimens and tracking animals in the cloud forests of Ecuador as it worked to discover the new species. (Photo by Mark Gurney)

The Smithsonian Institution revealed the discovery of a new animal species, the olinguito, Thursday morning.

The olinguito (Bassaricyon neblina) hails from the same family as raccoons, coatis, kinkajous and olingos — but it’s been a victim of mistaken identity for more than 100 years, the Smithsonian says.

The new species was discovered during a study of olingos, a previously known species. The team’s work ended up revealing the existence of the olinguito through DNA testing and historic field data.

The revelation comes after more than a decade of work as a team of scientists reviewed previously overlooked specimens “from museum cabinets in Chicago to cloud forests in South America to genetics labs in Washington, D.C.,” a release from the Smithsonian said.

 PHOTOS: Meet the Olinguito

“Well, it’s a wonderful example of science at its best, and a scientist doing his best work,” said G. Wayne Clouch, secretary of the Smithsonian Insitution. “And it’s a new species, the first one of its kind that’s been discovered in 35 years. It can’t get any better than that.”

The team of scientists saw olinguitosa number of times in the wild, at first believing they were simply smaller olingos, said Kristofer Helgen, curator of mammals at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History during a press conference at the Smithsonian Castle Thursday morning.

“It was real; it was alive; it was in the wild,” said Helgen.

With big eyes and woolly orange-brown fur, the olinguito is the first carnivorous species to be discovered in 35 years, although it eats mostly fruit. They’re native to the cloud forests of Colombia and Ecuador. They typically weigh about two pounds, are solitary animals, and usually have one baby at a time.

Scientists say the discovery of a new mammal in the 21st century is incredibly rare.

“The discovery of the olinguito shows us that the world is not yet completely explored, its most basic secrets not yet revealed,” Helgen said.

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