The discovery of new mammals is quite rare, but the olinguito escaped scientific attention while hiding in plain sight. A number of specimens already existed in field museum collections, but were previously thought to belong to the olingo, a related species.
Researcher Kristofer Helgen describes coming across an olinguito (pronounced oh-lin-GHEE-toe) specimen to Smithsonian magazine:
“At the Chicago Field Museum, I pulled out a drawer, and there were these stunning, reddish-brown long-furred skins," he said. "They stopped me in my tracks—they weren't like any olingo that had been seen or described anywhere." The known species of olingo have short, gray fur. Analyzing the teeth and general anatomy of the associated skulls further hinted that the samples might represent a new species.
Researchers spent the next several years conducting DNA tests and studying olingos and their relatives in the rain forests of Ecuador and Colombia. The team found that the olinguito is in fact a distinct species from the olingo.
Helgan and his team presented their finding in thejournal ZooKeys. The raccoon-like creatures live in the trees of the cloud forests of the Andes, are nocturnal and have one young at a time. Their reddish fur and smaller bodies distinguish them from olingos. The olinguito belongs to the taxonomic order Carnivora, which also includes bears, dogs, cat and weasels, which are distinguished by jaws and teeth adapted to chew meat. Yet these carnivores were observed to eat mostly fruit.
Although rarely seen, the olinguito is not considered to be endangered. However, the researchers hope that excitement about the new discovery will invigorate efforts to preserve and protect their rainforest habitat.