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World’s newest mammal looks like a teddy bear

The newly-discovered olinguito was hiding in plain sight at a U.S. zoo in a bizarre case of mistaken identity.
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Michael Hiscock, August 16, 2013 11:07:24 AM

Isn’t she cute?

Researchers announced yesterday the rare discovery of a new species of animal called the olinguito (oh-lihn-GEE’-toe). But the strange part is, the little guy was hiding in plain sight the whole time.

One of them lived at the Smithsonian-run National Zoo in Washington for a year in a bizarre case of mistaken identity. Staff thought the critter, named Ringerl, belonged to a sister species called the olingo. But slowly, the clues started emerging.

Before she died in 1976, the olinguito was being shipped around from zoo to zoo on a breeding mission. First in Louisville, Ky., then Tucson, Ariz., Salt Lake City, Washington and finally, New York City.

She just wouldn’t breed. Which is when the Smithsonian’s curator of animals decided to compare the olinguito’s skin and skull to that of other mammals in the same family. He couldn’t find a match.

“It turns out she wasn’t fussy,” said Kristofer Helgen. “She wasn’t the right species.”

It’s hard to figure out how the confusion lasted for so long. Olinguitos are smaller, have shorter tails, a rounder face, tiner ears and darker, bushier fur than the olingo. It also eats fruit, and is the smallest member of the raccoon family of mammals.

“Most people believe there are no new species to discover, particularly of relatively large charismatic animals,” said Case Western Reserve University anatomy professor Darin Croft. “This study demonstrates that this is clearly not the case.”

The last time a new mammal was discovered in North America was 35 years ago.

Researchers have already seen more olinguitos in Ecuador and Colombia, but say they could also be in parts of Panama, Costa Rica, Venezuela, Brazil, Peru and Guyana.

But please, don’t feed the animals.

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