Cosmic Log

In love with olinguito? Feast your eyes on more cute new species

Aug. 16, 2013 at 12:28 AM ET

Maurice Emetshu
Check out the cute (and weird) animal species that have come to light in recent years.

The Ecuadorean olinguito may be the first new carnivorous mammal to be found in the Americas in 35 years, but if the categories are widened a bit, you can find lots of cute critters that have been added to the tree of life in recent years.

For example, there's the lesula — a shy, big-eyed monkey that was described as a new primate species in September. The discoverers saw it just a few years ago in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It went unnoticed for so long because it's found only in a dense, dark, isolated swath of rain forest that's seldom visited by scientists.

Then there's Durrell's vontsira, which was first spotted by researchers in 2004 while it was swimming in a lake, and was described as a new species in 2010. The mongoose-like mammal is found only on the island of Madagascar, and its range is so limited that it's considered "one of the most threatened" carnivores in the world, according to Conservation International.

Because of its isolation, Madagascar is a hotbed for biodiversity and novel species: The island is home to a soulful-looking lemur that was described as a potentially new primate species in 2010. Just last month, researchers identified another new species in Madagascar known as the Lavasoa dwarf lemur.

In the big picture, the olinguito is just one pretty face among thousands of new species. Arizona State University's International Institute for Species Exploration estimates that about 18,000 species are added to the master list every year. That averages out to almost 50 new species a day.

Video: For the first time in 35 years a new mammal species was discovered in the Americas: Meet the olinguito. NBC’s Lester Holt reports.

Quentin Wheeler is the institute's founding director and the author of a recently published book on recently discovered species, titled "What on Earth?" He says it's thought that our planet is home to 10 million to 12 million living species, but we've cataloged only about 2 million of them. And that's not even counting the legions of microbial species that live among us (and in us).

Time is running out for many of those species — due to habitat loss and other threats to biodiversity — and Wheeler says it's time to pick up the pace. "We are calling for a NASA-like mission to discover 10 million species in the next 50 years," he said in a news release. "This would lead to discovering countless options for a more sustainable future while securing evidence of the origins of the biosphere."

Think about that as you flip through our slideshow of cute new species, and check out our long list of other species to marvel at:

Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the NBC News Science Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding +Alan Boyle to your Google+ circles. To keep up with NBCNews.com's stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.


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