A tree-dwelling animal with a teddy-bear-like face and rust-coloured fur has become the newest mammal species discovered by scientists.
The olinguito, the smallest known member of the raccoon family, lives in the cloud forests high in the Andes Mountains of Colombia and Ecuador, reported a team of scientists from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., which described it in the journal ZooKeys Thursday.
The animal has actually been displayed in museums and zoos over the past 100 years, but was mistakenly identified as a different, known species among its close relatives, the olingo.
"It's been kind of hiding in plain sight for a long time," Kristofer Helgen, curator of mammals at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, and lead author of the new report, told The Associated Press.
Once displayed at Smithsonian-run zoo
In fact, an olinguito named Ringerl was displayed at the Smithsonian-run National Zoo in Washington at one point. Ringerl was captured in the mountains of Colombia as an adult and was shipped from zoo to zoo in the U.S. from 1967 to 1976. Zookeepers thought she was an olingo, and tried to get her to breed with other olingos, something she refused to do.
"It turns out she wasn't fussy," Helgen said. "She wasn't the right species."
Helgen said the situation illustrates why it's so important to properly identify species and learn as much as we can about them.
Helgen first suspected he may have found a new species while looking through the collections of the Chicago Field Museum in 2003 as part of research for his doctoral thesis, he recalled at a Smithsonian news conference Thursday.
At the time, he was studying olingos — themselves mammals that people knew very little about, including how many species there were and where they lived. As part of his project, he was trying to look at every olingo specimen in every museum in the world.
At the Chicago museum, one of his first stops, he opened a drawer labelled as being full of olingos and found an animal that didn't look quite like an olingo.
"I saw this beautiful reddish orange pelt, this animal skull that I didn't recognize," he told CBC's Dave Seglins in an interview. "The animal was so striking."
He called over his wife, Lauren Helgen, and told her he thought it might be a new species.
The pair undertook more research, and found that the new species, which weighs less than a kilogram and is less than a metre long when fully grown, was smaller than an olingo. It had a shorter snout and smaller ears, a smaller, bushier tail, and a more brightly coloured, thicker fur. It also had teeth that were quite different from olingo teeth.
Through DNA testing, the researchers discovered that the DNA of the Chicago museum specimen matched a profile in a public DNA bank submitted by a zoo in Louisville, Ky. The researchers managed to track down the zookeeper who cared for the animal and learned the story of Ringerl.
Lauren Helgen said that at first they were excited about their discovery and wanted to share the news as quickly as possible.
"But then we started to realize how little we actually know about the new species," she said in an interview with CBC News. "We wanted to be able to present it to the world, to know whether it still lived."
Kristofer Helgen contacted Roland Kays, director of the Biodiversity and Earth Observation Lab at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, who had trapped olingos before. They travelled together by bus, horse and mule to Otonga Cloud Forest Reserve in Ecuador, where they joined with Miguel Pinto, an Ecuadorian zoologist who knew the cloud forests well.
A few days before Helgen and Kays arrived, Pinto managed to shoot some camcorder footage of an olinguito jumping from tree to tree.
'We knew it when we saw it'
Helgen himself managed to spot one the first night after his arrival.
"This animal's been confused with other species for so long," he recalled, "but we knew it when we saw it."
The team observed the animal and learned as much as they could about it.
Olinguitos are part of the taxonomic group Carnivora that includes cats, dogs and bears, and are the first members of that group discovered in the Americas in 35 years. However, despite being part of a group full of meat eaters, olinguitos eat mainly fruit.
The animals are solitary, active mainly at night, and they give birth to one baby at a time. The researchers also learned that olinguitos share their habitat with both olingos and kinkajous, another close, similar-looking relative, which may be one reason why they remained "undiscovered" for so long.
"Anyone who's been seeing these animals for hundreds or even thousands of years, thinks they might see a kinkajou … thinks they might have seen an olingo," Helgen said.
The olinguito has been given the scientific name Bassaricyon neblina. Bassaricyon is the same genus as olingos and its species name is Spanish for "fog."
The researchers mapped out the olinguitos' range and estimate there are thousands of them in the wild, meaning that they aren't endangered. Helgen's research also confirmed that the olinguito's relatives include three species of olingo, whose ranges have also been mapped and which aren't endangered either.
But he noted that about two-thirds of the cloud forest — the traditional habitat for olinguitos, olingos, kinkajous — have already been converted to agriculture and other human land uses.
"We hope that with the discovery of this olinguito and showing this beautiful animal to the world that we can draw some attention to these cloud forests, these restricted and threatened habitats where many other different types of plants and animals are found."
An earlier version of this story said incorrectly that the olinguito is the first mammal discovered in the Americas in 35 years. In fact, it is the first carnivore found in the Western Hemisphere in that time period.Aug 15, 2013 11:28 AM ET