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Till Now, a Case of Mistaken Identity for Elusive Olinguito, World’s New Mammal

August 15, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Misidentified for decades, this newly classified member of the raccoon family finally made its scientific debut. Jeffrey Brown discusses the surprising discovery with zoologist Kristofer Helgen of the Smithsonian Institution, who tracked the animal down to the cloud forests of Ecuador.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And to the story of something furry, carnivorous and just discovered. It’s a brand-new species of mammal unveiled today in Washington by scientists at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, the first found in the Americas in 35 years.

The olinguito is a small, nocturnal animal, part of the raccoon family. Living in the trees of the mountainous cloud forests of Ecuador and Colombia, it’s managed to stay hidden from view or, in several intriguing cases, unrecognized as a different species.

Here to talk about his find is zoologist Kristofer Helgen, who spent the last decade tracking the two pound critters.

And welcome and congratulations.

KRISTOFER HELGEN, Smithsonian Institution: Thank you very much.

JEFFREY BROWN: So tell us first about this critter. What is it?

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KRISTOFER HELGEN: Well, I want you to meet the olinguito.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK.

KRISTOFER HELGEN: So this is the latest — latest addition to the raccoon family tree.

Until now, it’s been confused with another kind of animal called the olingo, but it’s really quite a different animal. Now, we published today a scientific paper where we gave this animal, the olinguito, its scientific name for the very first time.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, when you say it’s been confused, that’s part of the intriguing thing of this story, right? These have been around — you found them where — the evidence, first, in museum collections like this.

KRISTOFER HELGEN: That’s exactly right.

And the story of the olinguito is one of mistaken identity. And so I first realized this animal existed by finding specimens in museum collections that had been put in the wrong place, sort of identified as the wrong animal.

But I realized as soon as I saw it the significance of this animal. It was first in the Chicago Field Museum. I pulled out of a drawer — I was studying other members of the raccoon family, olingos, kinkajous. I pulled out a drawer and I saw some orange-red pelts with long, flowing fur.

I looked at some skulls just like this one. And I looked at the skull. I saw teeth and bones of the skull that were shaped different from any mammal I had ever seen. And it was then that I thought, can it be true? Can this be an animal here in the drawer that has been overlooked by zoologists until now?

JEFFREY BROWN: So, that’s what — I have heard you use the phrase today hiding in plain sight. That’s what you mean. It was there. Nobody knew what it was.

KRISTOFER HELGEN: Some of the specimens had been in museum drawers — we’re talking behind the scenes, not on display — for decades, some even more than a century.

We have even found that an olinguito had been displayed at American zoos in 1960s and ’70s.

JEFFREY BROWN: A living version.

KRISTOFER HELGEN: A living version of this animal.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. Yes.

KRISTOFER HELGEN: So it’s been in museums. It’s been in zoos. But…

JEFFREY BROWN: Excuse me, because I heard that the story of the zoo was interesting, because they said they couldn’t — it wouldn’t mate with any other olinguito, and now we know why.

KRISTOFER HELGEN: Now we know why. It wasn’t that this animal was just fussy.

They moved it around trying to get it to breed with olingos. It just wasn’t at all the right species, so a very different kind of animal.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, what’s the significance? How do you explain it? Describe it.

KRISTOFER HELGEN: Well, I think that the significance is huge.

And that’s because the discovery, I think, is so unexpected. So the group of animals that the olinguito is part of are what we call the mammalian carnivores, carnivora. This include the dog family, the cat family, the bear family, the raccoon family. And these animals are beloved by the public. And they’re intensely studied by zoologists.

And because of that, the classification of these animals tend to be well-established. Most of these, we have known about for hundreds of years. Scientists have known about them. So, this part of the animal family tree is maybe the last place where you would expect an animal like the olinguito to be hiding.

JEFFREY BROWN: And once you discovered it in museums, you went to the actual place to see the actual living animal.

KRISTOFER HELGEN: Right.

So, the olinguito is only found in Colombia and Ecuador. I first realized that by studying as many museum specimens I could find. I went to essentially every relevant natural history museum in the world to see if I could find other overlooked specimens. They were all from — all the specimens I could find, from the same kind of habitat and elevation, a habitat we call cloud forests in the Northern Andes, Colombia and Ecuador.

So these specimens, even though they were in many cases decades old, gave us clues about what kind of habitats we could go and look for this animal in down in South America.

JEFFREY BROWN: And was it hard to find when you got there?

KRISTOFER HELGEN: We thought, maybe this will be a shot in the dark. I reached out to one of my closest friends, an Ecuadorian zoologist named Miguel Pinto. He knows the forests of the country extremely well.

He took us to a place where he thought we would have our best chance. On the first night that we were there, we found the animal in the wild.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s pretty cool.

KRISTOFER HELGEN: It was amazing.

Taking it — this story, kind of a detective’s trail, from skins and skulls in a museum, all the way down to a cloud forest on the western slopes of the Andes in Ecuador, seeing — first realizing the animal was a new species, and then seeing this new species in the wild.

JEFFREY BROWN: This is pretty exciting for you personally, huh?

KRISTOFER HELGEN: It really is.

I travel the world looking for new species of mammals, and I have discovered other mammals new to science, but I consider this my most exciting discovery yet.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, you know what? We’re going to continue the conversation about the implications of this. We will do that online.

KRISTOFER HELGEN: OK.

JEFFREY BROWN: We will invite the audience to join us there later.

But, for now, Kristofer Helgen, thanks so much.

KRISTOFER HELGEN: Thanks for having me, Jeff.