Scientists have just solved a case of mistaken identity. It involves a creature that looks like a cross between a house cat and a teddy bear, and it lives high up in the cloud forests of the Andes.
For over 100 years, scientists thought this animal was a well-known member of the raccoon family. Specifically, they thought it was a critter called the "olingo." But one scientist recently took another look and realized he had an entirely new species on his hands.
That scientist is Kristofer Helgen, a curator at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. He stumbled upon the animal while visiting The Field Museum in Chicago and sifting through dead specimens of the olingo.
"I pulled out a drawer. It was not anything I'd ever seen before. This was not any member of the raccoon family that anyone was familiar with," he says.
He started comparing the bodies and skulls of this animal with the olingos it was stored with.
At a storage room in the Smithsonian, Helgen shows off a lineup of dead specimens: On the left are two raccoons and on the right, two smaller animals — lighter brown in color, with tails lacking the characteristic raccoon bands. Their fur is softer, longer, thicker, because as Helgen discovered, this new cousin lives up high in the Andes Mountains in Colombia and Ecuador.
In fact, in every aspect he looked at, it looked unmistakably like a novel species — right down to the teeth.
"Look at those molars there, those big chunky teeth in the mouth," he says, as he pulls out a skull from a cardboard box.
Helgen has named the new species "olinguito," which means "little olingo," because of its striking resemblance to the animal it was long confused with.
All of the museum specimens of the olinguito that Helgen looked at came from the cloud forests in Ecuador and Colombia. So, he and his colleagues went looking for the animal in Ecuador.
"The very first evening, the very first night that we were there, there in the trees, maybe about 10 meters up, was the first olinguito that we were able to see," says Helgen.
He says the animal is shy and rarely comes down from trees.
He and his team have published their findings in the journal Zoo Keys.
Esteban Payan, of the nonprofit organization Panthera, says he is thrilled at this discovery. He is an expert on mammals in the Andes and is based in Bogota.
Payan says he spent his childhood summers on a farmhouse right in the middle of the olinguito's habitat and had no clue about the animal's existence.
"I'm surprised," he says. "I'm flabbergasted to have that species right there, under our nose and no one knows that!"
Payan says he now plans to set up video cameras around his farm house in the hopes of catching a glimpse of this shy, elusive animal.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And now a case of mistaken identity. It involves a creature that looks like a cross between a house cat and a teddy bear. It lives high in the cloud forests of the Andes. For more than a hundred years, scientists thought it was a cousin of the raccoon called the Olingo. But recently, they took another look and realized it was really an entirely new species. They're now calling it the Olinguito or Little Olingo.
NPR's Rhitu Chatterjee explains how its true identity to came to light.
RHITU CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: Kristofer Helgen is a curator of mammals at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. He discovered this new cousin of the raccoon while sifting through dead specimens.
KRISTOFER HELGEN: I pulled out a drawer. It was not anything I'd ever seen before. This was not any member of the raccoon family that anyone was familiar with.
CHATTERJEE: He started comparing the bodies and skulls of this animal with those of the animal it was stored with. He takes me to a storage room in the Smithsonian, where he's lined up a range of dead specimens.
HELGEN: Come in close. I want to introduce you to the members of the raccoon family here.
CHATTERJEE: On the left are two very dead, flattened raccoons. On the far right are two much smaller animals, lighter in color than the raccoons. Their tails are lacking the characteristic raccoon bands and their fur is softer, longer, thicker because, as Helgen later discovered, this new cousin lives up high in the Andes Mountains in Colombia and Ecuador. In fact, every aspect he looked at, this looked like a novel species right down to the teeth.
(SOUNDBITE OF RATTLING)
CHATTERJEE: He pulls a skull out of a box.
HELGEN: Look at those molars there, those big chunky teeth in the mouth.
CHATTERJEE: Helgen has named the new species Olinguito, which means Little Olingo. That's because of the striking resemblance to another member of the raccoon family, the Olingo. He eventually went looking for the Olinguito in the cloud forests of Ecuador, because that's where the museum specimens came from, and found that its alive and well, although shy and elusive.
Helgen and his team have introduced Olinguito to the world in a new study published in the journal Zoo Keys.
Rhitu Chatterjee, NPR News.
CORNISH: To see how the Olinguito stacks up against other members of the raccoon family, go to NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.