Raleigh, N.C. — A team of scientists, including a North Carolina State University professor, has discovered a new species of carnivore, the Smithsonian Institution announced Thursday.
N.C. State professor Roland Kays, who also serves as director of the Biodiversity Lab at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh, helped uncover the existence of the olinguito, a small meat-eater that lives in the cloud forests of Colombia and Ecuador.
The animal, which is related to raccoon, olingos, coatis and kinkajous, weighs about 2 pounds and has large eyes and wooly orange-brown fur. Scientists describe its appearance as a cross between a house cat and a teddy bear.
The finding marks the first discovery of a carnivore species in the Western hemisphere in 35 years.
“The discovery of the olinguito shows us that the world is not yet completely explored, its most basic secrets not yet revealed,” team leader Kristofer Helgen, curator of mammals at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, said in a statement. “If new carnivores can still be found, what other surprises await us? So many of the world’s species are not yet known to science. Documenting them is the first step toward understanding the full richness and diversity of life on Earth.”
The discovery was the result of a 10-year project to study olingos and determine how the different species are distributed. Examining museum specimens, new testing of DNA and a comprehensive review of existing field research led to the discovery of the olinguito.
Combing through historic data, the scientists found the olinguito’s teeth and skull were smaller and differently shaped than its cousins, and it lived at an elevation in the northern Andes Mountains that was much higher than where previous olingos had been seen. Kays led a field expedition to figure out whether the species still existed in the wild.
“The data from the old specimens gave us an idea of where to look, but it still seemed like a shot in the dark,” Kays said in a statement. “But these Andean forests are so amazing that, even if we didn’t find the animal we were looking for, I knew our team would discover something cool along the way.”
A colleague in Ecuador shared with the team a few seconds of grainy video he shot showing the animal. That footage prompted Helgen and Kays to set off on a three-week expedition to the western slopes of the Andes, where they found the olinguito.
"This is my favorite part, to get in the field and look for animals like this," Kays said. "It's tricky because they only come out at night and they are only up in the trees up high, and it's real mountainous terrain. So it's putting on a head lamp, waiting until sunset and putting on your rubber boots, trekking up and down hills."
Scientists said the olinguito may have been overlooked or misidentified for decades. In 1920, a zoologist in New York saw one museum specimen so unusual, he thought it might be a new species. But he never followed through on the research.
“This is the first step,” Helgen said. “Proving that a species exists and giving it a name is where everything starts. This is a beautiful animal, but we know so little about it. How many countries does it live in? What else can we learn about its behavior? What do we need to do to ensure its conservation?”