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‘Crowd-sourced’ science sheds new light on new mammal olinguito

August 19, 2014 at 6:48 PM EDT
In the year since the discovery of the olinguito — a small, furry, tree-dwelling member of the raccoon family, living in the forests of Colombia and Ecuador — the mammal has gone from being literally unknown to being surprisingly well-documented. Zoologist Kristofer Helgen of the Smithsonian Institution joins Jeffrey Brown to discuss how the public has contributed to tracking the olinguito.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: newly discovered by scientists and newly documented by the crowd.

Jeff is back to explain.

JEFFREY BROWN: It was an exceedingly rare discovery: a new species of mammal called the olinguito, a small, furry, tree-welling member of the raccoon family, living in the forests of Colombia and Ecuador.

In the year since the announcement, the olinguito has gone from literal unknown to being surprisingly well-documented through photos and videos shot by amateur naturalists, bird watchers, and others, a kind of crowd-sourced science.

Kristofer Helgen, a curator of mammals at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of Natural History, was part of the original discovery team, and joins us once again for an update.

And welcome back…

KRISTOFER HELGEN, Zoologist, Smithsonian Institution: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: … a year later.

KRISTOFER HELGEN: Great to be back.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, first, a quick reminder of this creature, what it is.

KRISTOFER HELGEN: A year ago, we announced this new species of mammals. The olinguito is the smallest number of the raccoon family. It is found only in these high-elevation cloud forest habitats of Colombia and Ecuador.

And I want to remind you, last year, I was here to tell you about the way that we first realized this animal existed. I found skin and skulls of the olinguito in museums around the world.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right. That was the interesting part. It wasn’t out in the field. It was in museum drawers.

KRISTOFER HELGEN: And these were skins and skulls that all zoologists had missed.

It was an animal that is so distinctive that, once we learn how to tell it apart from all of its relatives in the raccoon family, it’s hard to miss it again. And so we use these skins and skulls to figure out where exactly we would be most likely to find this animal.

And the skins and skulls, the specimens had come from just these few high-elevation areas. We used that working with a colleague in Ecuador, Miguel Pinto, who knows the forests of the country very well. We told him, can you take us to the place based on this information that you think we have the best chance to find it? And we did. We went and found this animal alive in the wild.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, so that was a year ago.


JEFFREY BROWN: You knew it existed, but you didn’t know a whole lot.

And I gather that, since then, you started getting all kinds of information from unexpected sources?

KRISTOFER HELGEN: That’s exactly right.

It’s been absolutely serendipitous. So, I came here last year on day one for the olinguito. It was the day that we gave it its scientific name. And we showed the world in announcements what this animal is and how to tell it apart. But we — like you say, we didn’t know much about it yet. We just knew a little bit of information, a few places where it occurred.

We knew that it only came out at night, that it just lived up in the trees. But most of what we were hoping to learn about the olinguito was still in front of us.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, what happened? People start sending in photos?

KRISTOFER HELGEN: Just from that first moment, we started getting information flowing back.

Now, some people saw the pictures of the olinguito and they said, wait a second. I have been to these areas of South America. I think I have seen animal that is a lot like that. Maybe they went back through their vacation photographs. Maybe they looked closer at the protected areas where they were working.

It was cases like that and often involving bird watchers. These are people who are poised, their eyes and ears at the ready, cameras and binoculars there, so that when they were in these places where the olinguito could occur and that animal showed itself, they were taking cameras — pictures and film and sending it to us.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, some of the photos we’re showing now, in one in particular, a baby olinguito.

KRISTOFER HELGEN: This is the first information in this year since we made this announcement, the first information about baby olinguitos ever.

Now, last year, some people were asking me, is there — could there be a cuter animal, a new species than the olinguito? This year, we learned the answer. And that’s the baby olinguito. These are just absolutely endearing images of a beautiful animal.

These pictures of the baby olinguito come from a particular protected area in Colombia. It’s called Mesenia-Paramillo. And it’s in this place where, just within the first month or so of our announcement, people working on studying and protecting this forest took a closer look and found olinguitos in the wild.

They documented the first nesting behavior, the first babies, great images. And I understand that some of the researchers at that protected forest area are actually tracking and studying the animal now as we speak.

JEFFREY BROWN: Were you surprised about what happened? You didn’t send out all-points bulletin, in fact. But this spontaneous response and a kind of crowd-sourced science, did that catch you by surprise? What did you learn about how you can do science nowadays?

KRISTOFER HELGEN: Well, it was extremely exciting.

We didn’t have to go beat the bushes. Like you said, it came to us. Truly, thousands of people have reached out to us this past year with some interest or another about the olinguito. Of that number, maybe several dozen have given us really high-quality information. They have seen…

JEFFREY BROWN: Sometimes, it’s not an olinguito. Right?

KRISTOFER HELGEN: Oftentimes, it’s not an olinguito.


KRISTOFER HELGEN: I have even had people that think they may have found the olinguito in their backyard here in the United States.


JEFFREY BROWN: And you have to gently tell them.

KRISTOFER HELGEN: All kinds of information.

But some of it has been fantastic information. Most species, we know very little about them. And this year, taking stock of the information that’s come in, I think that it’s a fantastic moment to reflect on how observant naturalists, photographers, people just there ready to learn something about nature, curious people, can make contributions that are really valuable to natural history.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, continuing interesting story.

Kris Helgen of the Smithsonian Institution, thanks so much.

KRISTOFER HELGEN: You’re welcome, Jeff.