Hidden away in the cloud forests of Colombia and described as half cat, half teddy bear, this cute creature is the first new carnivore to be discovered in the Western Hemisphere in 35 years. Weighing two pounds and with wooly orange brown fur, it lives in the cloud forests of Colombia and Ecuador, as its scientific name neblina - Spanish for fog - suggests. MCT Photo
RALEIGH, N.C. - Even with so much of the world so thoroughly investigated, a trio of scientists say new discoveries do, occasionally, still grow on trees.
A researcher at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences is part of a small team that announced Thursday it had identified the Western Hemisphere's first new carnivore species in 35 years. The olinguito - pronounced oh-lin-GHEE-toe - is a 2-pound member of the raccoon family that lives in the cloud-draped canopy of mountaintop rain forests in Ecuador and Colombia.
In scientific terms, "It's really cute," said Roland Kays, director of the biodiversity lab at the state science museum and a research associate professor of mammalogy at North Carolina State University. He helped track down the nocturnal olinguito in the wild.
The olinguito has reddish-brown fur and a long tail with faint rings.
Kays, Helgen and Miguel Pinto, a zoologist in Ecuador, published their findings on the olinguito Thursday in the journal ZooKeys. They simultaneously announced the discovery in a YouTube video produced by the online site Untamed Science, and introduced a stuffed rendition of the critter, suitable for cuddling.
The first 20 of the toys offered at the Museum of Natural Sciences' downtown gift shop disappeared fast, as Kays say the real animals do in their native habitat.
"They're sneaky," he said; they dart about the 100-foot-tall treetops at night, obscured by leaves and branches and the ethereal mist of the Andean cloud forest. It's easy to see how scientists might have overlooked them for so long.
In fact, several specimens had been collected and preserved in science museums around the country, but most had been miscataloged as olingos, their larger, more common kin.
Helgen came across some of the dusty specimens while he was studying olingos and noticed these stood out for their smaller size, shorter snouts and different teeth. One even had a note on it from a scientist who suspected at the time it was a different species but apparently never followed up.