It is quite expected that new breeds of amphibians and insects will be found occasionally, but it is very rare to find a new breed of mammal, especially a carnivorous one. That is why the discovery of the olinguito has excited so many scientists. According to The Smithsonian, a mongoose-like creature was the last carnivorous mammal to be found in Madagascar back in 2010, but it was some three decades prior to that that the last carnivorous mammal was found.
Kristofer M Helgen, the lead researcher into the olingos, a species of mammals related to the raccoon, found that the olinguito was a separate species. Previously, it was presumed to be one of the olingos, furry mammals that scurry through the trees of the Andean cloud forests. As they come alive at night, it was hard for researchers to find out much about them. As he explained in the journal, ZooKeys, once the researchers were able to spend time researching the olingos in Ecuador, they were able to discover that the olinguito was a separate species.
Early in his research, Helgen noticed that a number of examples of olingos taken overseas and displayed in museums were much smaller than others. All of the miniature olingos came from high up in the Andes. Once Helgen and his team were able to spend some time studying the creatures in situ, they were able to confirm that the olinguito was a separate species. Weighing less than a kilogram and reddish in colour, they spend most of their time up in the trees. Despite the fact that they are carnivorous, they live mostly on fruit.
Interestingly, olinguitos have been present in zoos for some 100 years, but they were previously presumed to be olingos. As CBC News explains, there was an olinguito called Ringerl on display at the Washington Zoo. Zookeepers tried to encourage her to mate with other olingos and were surprised that she refused to do so. Ringerl, of course, knew that she was different from the olingos and refused to do what wasn’t natural to her.
Once Helgen began his research into the olingos, he was fascinated to find that not only was the olinguito much smaller than the other olingos, but that it also had more brightly coloured fur and different teeth. Taking some DNA from a specimen he found at the Chicago Field Museum, he found that it matched the profile of a specimen at a zoo in Kentucky. This turned out to be Ringerl and, by talking to her zookeeper Helgen was able to start putting the pieces of the jigsaw together. He then travelled out to Ecuador with his team and almost immediately saw an olinguito that the team were then able to track.
Unfortunately for the olinguito, just as it has been discovered, it is facing distinction. According to the New Scientist, Helgen explains that some 42% of its forest habitat, remote as it is, has been taken over by construction and farming. Along with many other species, there is every possibility that this furry, teddy bear-like creature could die out, unless better measures are put into place to protect them.