New Species Hidden Right Under Our Noses
Published: Tuesday, September 3, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, September 3, 2013 17:09
It’s not difficult to imagine that scientists discover a new species every day. After all, just think about how much of the ocean we’ve yet to explore and how many creatures could be hidden down there, out of sight. Just think about the millions of tiny insects living in nearly every environment imaginable—surely some of them have never been seen by human eyes before, right? Plants, bacteria, fungi, insects, plankton, deep sea fish…we’ve probably only scratched the surface as far as species identification goes. But what if I told you that, for the first time in more than 30 years, scientists have declared the discovery of a new species of mammal?
The olinguito is the smallest and newest member of the Procyonidae family, which includes raccoons. Procyonids are small, omnivorous mammals that live in a variety of environments all over the world. Olinguitos eat mainly fruit, but also eat insects and plant nectar. They are strictly arboreal, meaning they live up in the tree tops. They have been seen in the wild in Ecuador and Colombia, but likely inhabit the trees over other countries in South and Central America.
The discovery of this new mammal was announced on Aug. 15. Kristofer Helgen, the curator of mammals at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, was doing research at the Field Museum in Chicago when he noticed some specimens there didn’t seem quite right. He had skeletons and pelts from mammals all called ‘olingos,’ but they looked to him like they came from two different animals. He ran some DNA tests, and sure enough, the two animals were different enough to warrant a new species being named.
The olingo is the closest relative of the olinguito (“little olingo”) and has been known for years. In fact, the Smithsonian National Zoo had some olingos back in the ’70s, and they tried to breed their stock with other olingos from zoos across the country. One of their olingos, a small female named Ringerl, refused to breed with any of the males, and she was deemed “fussy.” She died in 1976, but it was later discovered she wasn’t picky, she just wasn’t an olingo! Not only has an unknown species of mammal hidden from us for so long, but it lived right under the noses of some of the world’s greatest mammal experts for years without being identified.
After DNA tests in Chicago, Helgen amassed a team of experts, including olingo specialist Roland Kays, and headed into the field. The group found an olinguito its very first night in the cloud forests of Colombia and Ecuador.
It’s hard to see how these two species were confused for so long. Olinguitos are much darker and smaller than olingos, and much fuzzier as well. Pictured for comparison is the olingo and below that is it’s new little cousin, the olinguito.
Many people are surprised to hear we haven’t identified all the species on Earth yet. However, nearly everyone thought we were done finding large, cute, mammalian animals that live out in the open! The discovery of the olinguito just goes to show you that science really is a process—a never-ending search for explanations and truths.