American Scientists from the Smithsonian Institute of Washington DC have discovered a new type of carnivorous mammal previously unknown to Western science.
The creature, known as the olinguito, is the first such animal to be discovered on the American continent in 35 years.
Zoologist Dr. Kristofer Helgen, who works as the curator of mammals in Washington DC’s National Museum of Natural History, discovered some stored remains in a Chicago museum and was reportedly ‘stopped in his tracks’ upon seeing them.
Following further examination, Helgen says that, “The skins were a rich red colour and when I looked at the skulls I didn’t recognize the anatomy. It was different to any similar animal I’d seen, and right away I thought it could be a species new to science.”
DNA testing eventually proved that, whilst the 35-cm long olinguito is a type of olingo (a relative of raccoons), it is definitely a distinct species in its own right. However, not content with simply describing the species from the remains, the real challenge for Helgen was to attempt to observe this new mammal in the wild.
Using educated guesswork and clues obtained from the specimen drawer, Dr. Helgen and his team were able to theorize a possible habitat for the olinguito. Their ideas proved to be correct and the animal has since been established as inhabiting a number of protected areas from Central Columbia to Western Ecuador.
This is not the first time that Dr. Helgen has identified new species by examining museum remains. In fact, throughout his distinguished career, he has discovered around 100 new species of animals. As an example, Helgen’s work has demonstrated that the hog badger, presumed simply to be a single, widespread species, was in fact three different species, albeit with similar attributes.
Historical records show that Washington National Zoo actually had an olinguito specimen in the 1960’s, but it was never identified as such. The animal was exhibited as an olinga, but its keepers were puzzled when it failed to breed. Sadly, the captive olinguito died without ever being correctly identified.
It should also be noted that just because an animal is considered ‘new’ to Western science, the term rarely denotes a species completely unknown to Humankind. People native to the areas inhabited by these animals are usually well aware of its presence and indispensable in locating individuals for observation and study by Western researchers.
A host of other new species have already been discovered this year, including the Cambodian tailorbird, a new type of hero shrew, a reef fish from the Caribbean, a beautifully patterned bat from the Sudan and two new spider species (including a grey and black tarantula the size of an open palm).
To Dr. Helgen, this is hardly surprising, “Conventional wisdom would have it that we know all the mammals of the world. In fact, we know so little. Unique species, profoundly different from anything ever discovered, are out there waiting to be found.” He says.