The Olinguito: A Newly Discovered Carnivore… Sort of

Over the last couple of weeks, you may have heard news about the “newly-discovered” South American carnivore, the olinguito. Perhaps what’s most interesting about this discovery is that people have actually been closely looking at olinguito specimens for decades. Olinguitos have even been on display in zoos in the U.S. However, people thought these animals were actually a different, but similar, carnivore, called the olingo.

olinguito newly discovered carnivore
The newly “discovered” olinguito, a South American carnivore, is shown here. For decades it was misclassified as the closely-related olingo. (Image credit: Mark Gurney)

The misclassification was cleared up on August 15, 2013, when Kristofer Helgen, the curator of mammals at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, announced that he had anatomical and genetic evidence proving that the olingo and the olinguito are two different species. And now it makes sense why the olinguitos turned their noses up at the olingos, and refused to mate, when they were housed together at zoos!

The olinguito (Bassaricyon neblina) and the olingo (which includes multiple species in the Bassaricyon genus, which were also identified by Helgen) are nocturnal, tree-dwelling carnivores that live in South American rainforests. They belong to the same family as raccoons. Although they’re taxonomically classified as carnivores, olinguitos and olingos actually mostly eat plant matter, like pandas do.

olingo newly discovered carnivore
This is an oligo (specifically the Eastern lowland olingo [Bassaricyon alleni]). The olinguito was long misclassified as an olingo. (Image credit: P. Asimbaya and L. Velasquez)

The journey that ended a few weeks ago in the identification of the olinguito as a new species began in 2003 in a museum, where Helgen was studying so-called olingo specimens that looked very different. They were smaller overall (by about 20%), and had longer coats than other olingo specimens he’d seen before. Years later, Helgen and others found these critters living in an Ecuadorian rainforest. Upon doing a DNA analysis, the smaller carnivores were revealed to indeed be a different species; olinguitos only share about 90% of their DNA with olingos. (As a comparison, we share about 99% of our DNA with chimps.)

The olinguito’s story is just another reminder to always be watchful; amazing discoveries can still be made based on things that have been sitting in plain sight.

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