Scientists in the United States have found the Western Hemisphere's first new carnivorous mammal in 35 years. The long-tailed, reddish-brown olinguito is said to resemble a mix between a house cat and a teddy bear.
The olinugito, native to the high forests of Colombia and Ecuador, was announced as a distinct species by the Smithsonian Institute on Thursday.
The critter, which belongs to a larger grouping of animals that includes cats and dogs, measures about 2 feet (0.61 meters) long and weighs about 2 pounds (1 kilogram).
'Hiding in plain sight'
The animal has actually been around for quite some time, but scientists previously mistook it for its larger cousin, the olinga. One olinguito in fact lived at Washington, DC's National Zoo for a year in 1976. Named Ringerl, she was shipped to a number of zoos in an unsuccessful attempt to get her to breed.
"It's been kind of hiding in plain sight for a long time," said Kristofer Helgen, a Smithsonian scientist who first recognized it as a distinctive species ten years ago at Chicago's Field Museum.
"I pulled out a drawer … and said 'Wow,'" Helgen told a news conference, recalling the first time he saw a mislabeled specimen. "It was like nothing I'd ever seen before."
Helgen, whose discovery is detailed in the ZooKey journal study, later led a team to South America in 2006 to investigate the furry animal.
"When we went to the field we found it in the very first night," said study co-author Roland Kays of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. "It was almost like it was waiting for us."
There are a number of key differences between the olinga and olinguito, Helgen said. The olinguito's teeth and skull are much larger than the olinga, and its ears are less prominent. The olinguito also has a rounder face, shorter tail and bushier fur.
"It looks kind of like a fuzzball … kind of like a cross between a teddy bear and a house cat," Helgen said.
Olinguitos prefer to live in trees and have only one offspring at a time. While they are considered carnivores because of the structure of their teeth, they eat mostly fruit.
The animal has four subspecies and is the smallest member of the raccoon family. It is not being classified as endangered and experts say they believe there are thousands of them living in the wild. Their habitat range could include parts of Panama, Costa Rica, Venezuela, Brazil, Peru and Guyana.
"Proving that a species exists and giving it a name is where everything starts," said Helgen. "This is a beautiful animal, but we know so little about it. How many countries does it live in? What else can we learn about its behavior? What do we need to do to ensure its conservation?"
dr/kms (AP, Reuters, AFP)