New predator species discovered

The Olinguito native to the cloud forest of the Andes is the first find of a new carnivore species in 35 years

He looks like a mixture of teddy and cat: the Olinguito (Bassaricyon neblina). © Mark Gurney
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For the first time in 35 years, biologists have discovered a new species of predator in the Western Hemisphere: The Olinguito looks like a mixture of domestic cat and teddy bear and only occurs in a small area in the cloud forest of the Andes. However, the researchers first identified the nocturnal predator on the basis of prepared specimens in museums before they tracked it down in the field.

Bears, dogs, cats and hyenas - they all belong to the order of carnivores, the predators. This group of mammals is not only quite comprehensive, it has also been considered very well so far. No wonder, most of their relatives are anything but inconspicuous or tiny. But this assumption was misleading, as scientists from the Smithsonian Museum and Research Center in Washington have now discovered.

Inventory with surprising outcome

When they started their project around ten years ago, they just wanted to do an inventory of the long-known carnivore genus of the slender bear (bassaricyon). For this they searched, among other things, in museum collections for preserved specimens of these approximately dog-sized, tree-living predators. But then the researchers came across a few specimens that did not fit the rest: The skull was much smaller and shaped differently and the teeth did not fit. In addition, the skins of these skinny bears seemed to be denser and longer than any other.

The Olinguito was even exhibited in zoos, without anyone having recognized a new species in it - like this female that was recorded several decades ago. © I. Poglayen Neuwall

Finally, further investigations, including DNA analysis, revealed that the first impression had not been made: these "deviants" were in fact a completely new breed of carnivore - the first newly discovered Carnivore species in the Western Hemisphere for 35 years. The biologists christened the big-eyed climber with the orange-brown fur bassaricyon neblina - "fog-slender bear". Because all known specimens of the approximately one kilogram heavy predator came from a very narrow area: the cloud forest of Colombia and Ecuador in about 600 to 1, 500 meters altitude.

"The discovery of the Olinguito shows us that the world is far from fully explored, even its most basic secrets are not yet revealed, " notes Kristofer Helgen, curator of mammals at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. "If even new carnivores can be found, what other surprises do we expect to see?" So many species are still unknown to science. To document her is the first step in understanding the richness and diversity of life on earth. display

His coat is denser and longer than that of the other, larger slender bear Mark Gurney

Searching for traces in the cloud forest

The find of the Olinguito raised another big question: Does this newly discovered species still exist in the field at all? Or had one based on museum specimens picked up a species that had long since disappeared in the wild? To make that clear, the biologists embarked on a three-week expedition to the Andes. A first indication of where to look for them was provided by a shaky camcorder shot taken by local zoologist Miguel Pinto in the cloud forest. She showed an animal that could be an Olinguito.

In fact, the researchers were busy and were able to observe several representatives of this freshly baked member of the carnivores in the field. They discovered, among other things, that the Olinguito loves to eat fruit, barely moves out of the trees and only ever gets one cub at a time. But it also showed that the habitat of the climbing mini-leanbreed is severely threatened. The researchers estimate that 42 percent of the Olinguito's original area of ​​distribution has already fallen victim to mankind - the forest has been cleared to make way for fields and settlements. "We hope that the Olinguito can serve as a kind of ambassador for the foggy lands of Ecuador and Colombia, drawing the world's attention to these threatened but unique habitats, " says Helgen.

(Smithsonian, Aug 16, 2013 - NPO)