Press-Republican

FYI...

August 22, 2013

Smithsonian unearths a new species of carnivore: the olinguito

After years of sleuthing, Smithsonian scientists have come up with a new species of mammal - the olinguito.

The rust-colored, furry mammal lives in the treetops of the Andes Mountains and weighs two pounds, making it the most petite member of the raccoon family. It dines on fruits such as figs but also enjoys insects and plant nectar, according to the Smithsonian Institution, which announced the discovery Thursday.

The olinguito is the first new species of carnivore found in the Western Hemisphere in 35 years. Finding a new mammal, especially a carnivore, is rare.

The discovery corrects a long-running case of mistaken identity. For decades, scientists thought the mammal was an olingo, a larger member of the raccoon family, or another mammal. The animals had been observed in the wild, tucked away in museum collections and even exhibited at zoos - including the National Zoo.

 No one realized it was a new species until further investigation and DNA testing.



 "In some ways, this animal was hiding in plain sight," said zoologist Roland Kays of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, who helped discover the olinguito. Its pelts and bones were found stashed away in dusty museum drawers, either mislabeled or not labeled at all.

The animal puzzled zookeepers because it oddly refused to breed or mingle with other olingos.

"They thought it was just a fussy olingo, but turns out it was completely the wrong species," said Smithsonian zoologist Kristofer Helgen, who spearheaded the sleuthing on the olinguito, which is Spanish for "little olingo."

"Getting a new scientific name out there is really fun," he said. "It's almost like giving birth."

Although olinguitos have been spotted in the cloud forests of the northern Andes - in rain forests at elevations of 5,000 to 9,000 feet above sea level - scientists speculate the animals also might live elsewhere in Central and South America.

Finding the species was sort of an accident. Helgen initially went museum-digging because he was determined to find out how many species of the olingo existed. At the Field Museum of Chicago, what he found in a drawer stopped him dead in his tracks.

The reddish-orange pelts he saw were nothing like the skins of the olingos. Searching further, he learned that the anatomy of the skull was different - shorter snout, dissimilar teeth.

"I knew at that point it was a new species, but I also knew I needed to be sure," Helgen said. For years, he toiled away to confirm that the olinguito was a new species with thorough investigation and DNA testing, always afraid that another scientist would beat him to the punch.

Finally, he called upon Kays, the world's resident olingo expert, to help him track down a wild olinguito in its natural habitat. The researchers, along with Ecuadorian zoologist Miguel Pinto, set off on a weeks-long field expedition to the Andean cloud forests.

Amid the misty treetops and giant tomato-sized figs, the team spotted one the first night.

 "It sort of bounced around the trees almost like a monkey," Kays said, "doing its thing, eating the figs."

Zoologist DeeAnn M. Reeder of Bucknell University, co-curator of a scientific database of mammals, finds the olinguito to be an "extraordinarily beautiful animal" and says that to describe a new carnivore in the 21st century is "special and amazing."

"This gets people excited about science and museum work, and about the things you can discover," she said.

 

1
Text Only | Photo Reprints
FYI...
  • DayCareCosts.jpg Day care's cost can exceed college tuition in some states

    Most parents will deal with an even larger kid-related expense long before college, and it's a cost that very few of them are as prepared for: day care.

    April 18, 2014 1 Photo

  • Millions of Android phones, tablets vulnerable to Heartbleed bug

    Millions of smartphones and tablets running Google's Android operating system have the Heartbleed software bug, in a sign of how broadly the flaw extends beyond the Web and into consumer devices.

    April 17, 2014

  • Stepping forward: The real Colbert

    Letterman changed the late-night TV game between his run on NBC's "Late Night" and starting the "Late Show" franchise in 1993. And while it's tough to replace a pop-culture icon, Colbert, in terms of pedigree and sense of humor, makes the most sense.

    April 16, 2014

  • news_twitter.jpg Travelers fly on Air Twitter

    The enlightened age of social media has dawned over the airline industry, casting shadows over telephone call centers and on-site agents. Facebook and Twitter are racking up the friends and followers while the hold music plays on.

    April 15, 2014 1 Photo

  • 297px-Starbucks_Corporation_Logo_2011.svg.png Why Starbucks won't recycle your paper coffee cup

    When you drop that used white paper cup into the bin next to the door at a Starbucks, have you done your part to save the planet? Starbucks has long hoped that you would think so. After all, there's no better way to attract an affluent, eco-conscious clientele than to convince customers that your disposable product is "renewable."

    April 14, 2014 1 Photo

  • Screen Shot 2014-04-08 at 2.16.35 PM.png Are Americans smart to stop drinking diet sodas?

    Recent data from Beverage Digest suggest many are cutting back on diet sodas. Consumption of diet sodas fell more than that of sugary sodas in 2013. This raises two questions: Why is total consumption declining, and is drinking diet soda harmful to health?

    April 13, 2014 1 Photo

  • Fast, cheap test can help save lives of many babies

    As Easley did more research into her daughter's death, she learned that a pilot program had started just months earlier at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, Md. (Easley had delivered at a different hospital in the Washington area.) The program's goal was to screen every newborn with a simple pulse oximeter test that can help detect heart problems such as Veronica's, allowing doctors to respond.

    April 12, 2014

  • Starbucks retools pastry menu after customer complaints

    After the coffee chain bought gourmet-baking company La Boulange in 2012, it used the acquisition to add fancier pastries to U.S. locations. Now Starbucks is discovering that some customers liked the food better before, prompting another round of retooling.

    April 11, 2014

  • Lindley, Tom.jpg Taking someone out to the ballgame gets expensive

    Families in big-league cities like Boston and New York pay steep prices to catch a baseball game. It's not so expensive everywhere - especially if you're frugal.
     

    April 10, 2014 1 Photo

  • How improv comedy skills became a must-have for entrepreneurs

    A few years ago, for complex reasons, I attended the orientation week for Columbia Business School students. The week involved team-building exercises that forced us to solve problems together.

    April 9, 2014