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Newly Discovered Olinguito Builds Bio from Crowdsourcing [VIDEO]

Aug 28, 2014 02:33 PM EDT
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A newly discovered mammal called the olinguito, which didn't even have its own species name until a year ago, is now building its biography with help from dozens of bird watchers, scientists and others who are sharing their glimpses of this elusive creature.

Now officially named Bassaricyon neblina, the olinguito became the first carnivore species to be discovered in the Western Hemisphere in 35 years. The mammal is described in the Aug. 15 issue of the journal ZooKeys.

"The discovery of the olinguito shows us that the world is not yet completely explored, its most basic secrets not yet revealed," Kristofer Helgen, curator of mammals at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History and leader of the discovery team, told Smithsonian Science. "If new carnivores can still be found, what other surprises await us?"

Though it looks like a cross between a house cat and a teddy bear, the olinguito is actually a member of the raccoon family, living in the forests of Colombia and Ecuador. This tree-dwelling critter weighs around two pounds, has large eyes and woolly orange-brown fur. Until now, the olinguito had suffered from a case of mistaken identity for more than 100 years, being confused for the olingo, its larger cousin.

A team of Smithsonian scientists, however, uncovered overlooked museum specimens of this remarkable animal, and along with DNA testing and the review of historic field data, revealed the olinguito's existence.

For 10 years researchers poured over this data, showing that the animal lives in a unique area in the northern Andes Mountains at 5,000 to 9,000 feet above sea level - elevations much higher than the known species of olingo.

But more is still to be learned about this fascinating species, and so Smithsonian researchers have taken to crowdsourcing to learn about every aspect of the olinguito. Some observers have even spotted olinguitos mating and a baby tucked into a nest of leaves and soft mosses high in a tree in a Colombia preserve, according to ScienceNews.

"In the year since the announcement, the olinguito has gone from literal unknown to being surprisingly well-documented through photos and videos shot by amateur naturalists, bird watchers, and others, a kind of crowd-sourced science," Jeffrey Brown of PBS said in an interview.

Unfortunately, the researchers also realized that the rare olinguito is under pressures from human development, and 42 percent of its habitat has already been erased.

[Credit: Roland Kays]

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