AboutZoos, Since 2008


New car­niv­o­rous mam­mal species, Olin­guito, dis­cov­ered in the Amer­i­can continents

pub­lished 15 August 2013 | mod­i­fied 28 June 2014

For all of mod­ern his­tory, a small, car­niv­o­rous South Amer­i­can mam­mal in the rac­coon fam­ily has evaded the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity. Untold thou­sands of these red, furry crea­tures scam­pered through the trees of the Andean cloud forests, but they did so at night, hid­den by dense fog. Nearly two dozen pre­served sam­ples — mostly skulls or furs — were mis­la­beled in museum col­lec­tions across the United States. There’s even evi­dence that one indi­vid­ual lived in sev­eral Amer­i­can zoos dur­ing the 1960s — its keep­ers were mys­ti­fied as to why it refused to breed with its peers.

OlinguitoNow, the dis­cov­ery of the olin­guito has solved the mys­tery. At an announce­ment today in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., Kristofer Hel­gen, cura­tor of mam­mals at the Smith­son­ian National Museum of Nat­ural His­tory, pre­sented anatom­i­cal and DNA evi­dence that estab­lish the olin­guito (pro­nounced oh-​lin-​GHEE-​toe) as a liv­ing species dis­tinct from other known olin­gos, car­niv­o­rous tree-​dwelling mam­mals native to Cen­tral and South Amer­ica. His team’s work, also pub­lished today in the jour­nal ZooKeys, rep­re­sents the first dis­cov­ery of a new car­niv­o­rous mam­mal species in the Amer­i­can con­ti­nents in more than three decades.

Although new species of insects and amphib­ians are dis­cov­ered fairly reg­u­larly, new mam­mals are rare, and new car­niv­o­rous mam­mals espe­cially rare. The last new car­niv­o­rous mam­mal, a mongoose-​like crea­ture native to Mada­gas­car, was uncov­ered in 2010. The most recent such find in the West­ern Hemi­sphere, the Colom­bian weasel, occurred in 1978. “To find a new car­ni­vore species is a huge event,” said Ricardo Sam­paio, a biol­o­gist at the National Insti­tute of Ama­zon­ian Research in Brazil, who stud­ies South Amer­i­can mam­mals in the wild and was not involved in the project.

Olin­gui­tos, for­mally known as Bas­sar­i­cyon neblina, inhabit the cloud forests of Ecuador and Colom­bia in the thou­sands, and the team’s analy­sis sug­gests that they are dis­trib­uted widely enough to exist as four sep­a­rate sub­species. “This is extremely unusual in car­ni­vores,” Hel­gen said, in advance of the announce­ment. “I hon­estly think that this could be the last time in his­tory that we will turn up this kind of sit­u­a­tion — both a new car­ni­vore, and one that’s wide­spread enough to have mul­ti­ple kinds.”

Though Hel­gen has uncov­ered dozens of unknown mam­mal species dur­ing pre­vi­ous expe­di­tions, in this case, he did not set out to find a new species. Rather, he sought to fully describe the known olin­gos. But when he began his study in 2003, exam­in­ing pre­served museum spec­i­mens, he realised how lit­tle sci­en­tists knew about olingo diver­sity. “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. Analysing the teeth and gen­eral anatomy of the asso­ci­ated skulls fur­ther hinted that the sam­ples might rep­re­sent a new species. Hel­gen con­tin­ued his project with a new goal: Metic­u­lously cat­a­logu­ing and exam­in­ing the world’s olingo spec­i­mens to deter­mine whether sam­ples from a dif­fer­ent species might be hid­den among them.

Vis­its to 18 dif­fer­ent museum col­lec­tions and the exam­i­na­tion of roughly 95 per­cent of the world’s olingo spec­i­mens turned up dozens of sam­ples that could have come from the mys­tery species. Records indi­cated that these spec­i­mens — mostly col­lected in the early 20th cen­tury — had been found at ele­va­tions of 5,000 to 9,000 feet above sea level in the North­ern Andes, much higher than other olin­gos are known to inhabit.

To visit these bio­log­i­cally rich, moist, high-​elevation forests, often called cloud forests, Hel­gen teamed with biol­o­gist Roland Kays of the North Car­olina Museum of Nat­ural Sci­ences and C. Miguel Pinto, a mam­mal­o­gist at the Amer­i­can Museum of Nat­ural His­tory in New York City and a native of Quito, Ecuador. They trav­eled to Ecuadors’ Otonga Reserve, on the west­ern slope of the Andes in 2006. “Mam­mal­o­gists had worked there before and done sur­veys, but it seemed they’d missed this par­tic­u­lar species,” Kays said. “The very first night there, we dis­cov­ered why this might’ve been: When you go out and shine your light up into the trees, you basi­cally just see clouds.”

I was filled with dis­be­lief. This jour­ney, which started with some skins and skulls in an Amer­i­can museum, had taken me to a point where I was stand­ing in a cloudy, wet rain­for­est and see­ing a very real animal.
Kristofer Hel­gen, cura­tor of mam­mals, Smith­son­ian National Museum of Nat­ural History »

After hours of care­ful watch, the researchers did spot some crea­tures resem­bling the mys­tery spec­i­mens. But they also looked a bit like kinka­jous, other small car­niv­o­rous mam­mals in the rac­coon fam­ily. Ulti­mately, the researchers worked with a local hunter to shoot and retrieve one of the ani­mals, a last-​resort move among field biol­o­gists. Its resem­blance to the mys­te­ri­ous museum spec­i­mens was unmistakable.

Olinguito-New-MapThe team spent parts of the next few years vis­it­ing the Otonga Reserve and other cloud forests in Ecuador and Colom­bia, study­ing the char­ac­ter­is­tics and behav­iour of the crea­tures that the researchers began to call olin­gui­tos (adding the Span­ish suf­fix “-ito” to olingo, because of the smaller size). Like other olingo species, the olin­gui­tos were mostly active at night, but they were slightly smaller: on aver­age, 14 inches long and two pounds in weight, com­pared to 16 inches and 2.4 pounds. Though they occa­sion­ally ate insects, they largely fed on tree fruit. Adept at jump­ing and climb­ing, the ani­mals sel­dom descended from the trees, and they gave birth to one baby at a time.

With blood sam­ples taken from the olin­gui­tos and sev­eral other olin­gos, the researchers also per­formed DNA analy­sis, find­ing that the ani­mals are far more genet­i­cally dis­tinct than first imag­ined. Though other olin­gos lived as lit­tle as three miles away, olin­gui­tos shared only about 90 per­cent of their DNA with these olin­gos (humans share about 99 per­cent of our DNA with both chimps and bonobos).

The DNA analy­sis also exposed the olin­guito that had been hid­ing in plain sight. When the researchers tried to com­pare the fresh olin­guito DNA with the only olingo DNA sam­ple in Gen­Bank, the National Insti­tute of Health’s library of genetic sequences, they found that the two sam­ples were vir­tu­ally iden­ti­cal. Dig­ging into the doc­u­men­ta­tion of the donor ani­mal, which had been cap­tured by a Colom­bian dealer, the researchers found out that its keep­ers couldn’t fig­ure out why it looked dif­fer­ent and refused to breed with other olin­gos. The ani­mal was not an olingo, but an olinguito.

Many experts believe still more unknown species may be hid­ing in sci­en­tific col­lec­tions — per­haps even in the Field Museum col­lec­tion that set Helgen’s quest in motion, spec­i­mens from Colom­bia mostly gath­ered by mam­mal­o­gist Philip Her­shkovitz dur­ing the 1950s. “The sci­en­tific secrets of the col­lec­tions he made more than 50 years ago are still not exhausted after all this time,” said Bruce Pat­ter­son, cura­tor of mam­mals at the Field Museum, not­ing that two new sub­species of woolly mon­key were iden­ti­fied ear­lier this year based on the collection.

Hel­gen, Kays and the other researchers will con­tinue study­ing the behav­ior of the olin­gui­tos and attempt to assess their con­ser­va­tion sta­tus. An analy­sis of suit­able habi­tats sug­gests that an esti­mated 42 per­cent of the animal’s poten­tial range has already been defor­ested. Though the species isn’t immi­nently at risk, “there is rea­son to be con­cerned,” Hel­gen said. “A lot of the cloud forests have already been cleared for agri­cul­ture, whether for food or illicit drug crops, as well as expand­ing just human pop­u­la­tions and urban­i­sa­tion.” If cur­rent rates con­tinue, the ani­mal — along with many other species endemic to these envi­ron­ments — could become endangered.

The researchers, though, want the olin­guito to help reverse this process. “We hope that by get­ting peo­ple excited about a new and charis­matic ani­mal, we can call atten­tion to these cloud for­est habi­tats,” Hel­gen said. Solv­ing other mys­ter­ies of the nat­ural world requires leav­ing these habi­tats intact. “The dis­cov­ery of the olin­guito shows us that the world is not yet com­pletely explored, its most basic secrets not yet revealed.”

(Source: Smith­son­ian mag­a­zine by Joseph Stromberg, 15.08.2013)

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