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08/15/2013

Meet the olinguito, the world's newest mammal

Olinguito
The Olinguito, science's newest mammal. Researchers spent ten years tracking it in the Amazon. (IMAGE CREDIT: MARK GURNEY)

 

The olinguito, above, might be the cutest carnivore ever. 

But it boasts an even greater distinction: being the first carnivore species discovered in the Western hemisphere in 35 years. It's rare to find new mammals these days; it's even rarer to find new carnivores.

The Smithsonian Institute announced the discovery Thursday.

Researchers at the Smithsonian actually stumbled on the discovery when attempting something much more mundane. They were trying to create a catalogue of olingos, a furry tree-dweller that lives in the rainforests of Central and South America. Olingos belong to the same family as raccoons.

But when they were examining specimens collected over a century ago and stored in museums, some of the olingos were smaller than the others. Their teeth and skulls were shaped differently. They also had denser coats that looked different from normal olingo coats. The specimens had been collected from high in the Andes, where olingos don't usually live.

The researchers realized they were dealing with an entirely new species. So they set out to the Andes to document the new animal -- assuming it wasn't yet extinct -- and managed to gather footage of the new species in the wild. In fact, they managed to see one on their very first day in the field, one of the researchers told the Washington Post.

They called it the olinguito, which is Spanish for little olingo.  

Olinguitos mainly eat fruit (despite having characteristics of a carnivore), they discovered, and have one baby at a time. They keep to to the trees, and are mainly nocturnal. They are great jumpers.

And they live exclusively in the cloud forests of the Andes, a heavily vulnerable environment that has been decimated by human industry.

The researchers are hoping that the olinguito can grab the public's attention and act as an ambassador for the cloud forests, well over a third of which has been razed.

Lucky the thing is so darn cute.

Kate Allen is the Star's science and technology reporter. Find her on Twitter at @katecallen.

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