Daily Video

August 16, 2013

Newly Discovered Mammal Was “Hiding in Plain Sight”

Although specimens of the “olinguito” had been kept in museums and zoos for decades, the small South American mammal had been misidentified by scientists up until yesterday.

“The story of the olinguito is one of mistaken identity,” said Kristofer Helgen, a zoologist at the Smithsonian Institution. “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.”

The olinguito is a member of the raccoon family, and lives only in the cloud forests of Ecuador and Columbia. After Helgen studied the specimen in museums, he decided to travel to the animal’s natural habitat in South America to find one in the wild. His friend, an Ecuadorian zoologist, served as a guide.

“He knows the forests of the country extremely well,” said Helgen of his friend. “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.”

“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.”

Warm up questions

1. What does a zoologist study? Why is their job important?

2. Do you think it is possible that there are still undiscovered species of animals living on our planet? Speculate where they could be located and what kind of species of animals they could be.

3. What environmental impact do we have on animals? Should we be worried when animals go extinct?

4. What role do museums play in our understanding of the world and its animal kingdom?

Discussion questions

1. Why did it take so long to “discover” the olinguito?

2. Zoologist Kristofer Helgen traveled the world trying to solve the mystery of the olinguito. He mentioned that it was his “most exciting discovery yet,” do you think all his hard work was worth it? Why or why not?

3. How does Kristofer Helgen’s discovery of the olinguito help us to understand more about our environment and how the system of the animal kingdom works?

4. Explore the relationship between human consumption of resources and its effect on the animal kingdom. Do we have a responsibility to keep the earth healthy for other humans as well as animals?

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