Aug. 15, 2013 at 12:08 PM ET
A new mammal species has been confirmed by scientists, and it's already melting hearts. The olinguito, described as a cross between a house cat and a teddy bear, is the first new carnivorous mammal identified in the Western Hemisphere in 35 years, and it's considered one of the cutest scientific finds in recent memory.
Researchers first spotted the critter on a trip to Ecuador in 2006. On their very first night out into the fig tree jungle near Otonga, they saw it, but it has taken seven years to determine, genetically, how distinct it really was from the other furry mammals it resembles.
About 10 years ago, researchers began suspecting that olinguitos did exist. While rooting through some museum drawers and cabinets at the Field Museum in Chicago, a mammal expert from the Smithsonian Natural History Museum noticed that a collection of hides — labeled for a family of small, furry South American mammals called olingos — didn't completely match the others in his records. Later, odd bone samples would turn up. These raccoon-like critters, which hail from the Andean forests, hadn't been too widely studied. So the scientist decided to have a closer look.
Indeed, some 16 skeletons in the olingo collection were smaller boned, had larger teeth and smaller skulls. On Thursday, Kristofer Helgen, curator of mammals at the Smithsonian National Museum of History, and his fellow scientists announced their discovery.
Helgen has a knack for spotting new finds in museum stashes. Previously, after sorting through museum specimens, he identified two new species of hog badger, and helped reveal that two of those species were threatened by human activity.
When Helgen and his team hit the foggy jungle of the Ecuadorian Andes in 2006 to look for this latest species, they still weren't sure what they would find.
"We didn't even know if it would be still alive, or if we could find it," Roland Kays, a member of that party, told NBC News. But when it was found, Kays said, "It was like, 'C'mon scientist guys, you've seen us long enough. Get our name out there.'"
"It's certainly the cutest new species described in a long time," Kays, director of the Biodiversity and Earth Observation Lab at North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences said. In addition to cat and teddy bear comparisons, "it has a bit of monkey and raccoon thrown in there too," said Kays.
The researchers describe the entire olingo family, including a first-time analysis of the elusive olinguito, in the Aug. 15 edition of the journal ZooKeys.
Little did Helgen and company know, this little critter has been hiding in plain sight. For years, museum curators, zoo keepers and researchers mistook the olinguitos for their relatives, the known and named olingos.
Unlike the larger olingos, the new species has a smaller head, larger teeth, a blunter snout, and thicker, redder fur.
By their heritage and body type, the olinguitos are included as newest member of the order Carnivora, which includes civets, and cats, and bears, and hyenas. But this branch of the traditionally meat-loving order has has turned frugivore, and now lives off figs and other tree fruit, in addition to probably hunting small birds, lizards, and insects in the canopy.
Though solitary, it probably interacts with porcupines and kinkajous, some of the other night-time forest prowlers, Kays said.
Scientists discover new species all the time. Most often, they identify insects and other invertebrates, as only a fraction have been catalogued to date. It's far more unusual to discover a new species of mammal, which are far less populous and much easier to spot. Only a few small mammals have been discovered in the past decade.
The olinguito discovery, shows just "how special these Andean cloud forests are," Kays said. "There are these amazing frontiers in our world that haven't been explored ... tropical canopies holding these surprises."
In addition to Kristofer Helgen and Roland Kays, the authors of "Taxonomic revision of the olingos (Bassaricyon), with description of a new species, the Olinguito" include C. Miguel Pinto, Lauren Helgen, Mirian Tsuchiya, Aleta Quinn, Don Wilson, and Jesús Maldonado.