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New mammal discovered - and it's ADORABLE!

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
August 15th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

A new mammal, a member of the raccoon family has been identified and categorized - and it's adorable! The olinguito, pronounced oh-lin-GHEE-toe, has fluffy red-orange fur, a short bushy tail and a rounded face. It's like a plush toy sprung to life.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - The Bassaricyon neblina, or olinguito is the first mammalian carnivore species to be newly identified in the Americas in 35 years.

Some scientists argue that the olinguito should be considered the smallest living member of the raccoon family. This branch include other such cute critter as coatis and kinkajous. The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History likens the olinguito's appearance as a cross between a house cat and a teddy bear.

Olinguitos have always been with us, although they have been mistaken for other species before. Kristofer Helgen, curator of mammals at the Smithsonian says that the species "was in museums, it's been in zoos, and its DNA had even been sequenced, but no one had connected the pieces and looked close enough to realize, basically, the significance of this remarkable and this beautiful animal."

Scientists had previously assumed that olinguitos were members of their sister species, the olingos, Helgen says, which are larger, less furry and have longer faces than the newly discovered species.

Helgen began defining the new species when he set out about 10 years ago to begin a comprehensive study of olingos.

Helgen remembers pulling out a drawer of skins and skulls at the Chicago Field Museum in 2003. The examples didn't look like any animal he had ever seen before, or that had been reported by zoologists. The teeth and skull were smaller and shaped differently than olingos, and the coat was denser.

Records indicated the species had come from the northern Andes about 5,000 to 9,000 feet above sea level, which is much higher than olingo habitats.

Helgen and colleagues worked with Miguel Pinto, a zoologist in Ecuador in 2006, using Pinto's knowledge of cloud forest habitats to pick the best spots to investigate.

They didn't have long to wait. On their very first night on the pursuit, the team found a real, living olinguito. Helgen felt "sheer elation, just incredible excitement but at the same time almost disbelief. This animal had been missed by everyone."

The olinguito primarily eats fruits, as well as insects and nectar, and its activity is mostly at night. The animal lives in the trees and can jump from one to another. Mothers raise a single baby at a time.

At about 2.5 feet long from nose tip to tail tip, the olinguito weighs about 2 pounds and is a little smaller than a house cat.

DNA analysis confirmed that while olinguitos and olingos both belong to the raccoon family, they are "sister groups," in the same way that humans are closely related to chimpanzees.

Found primarily in Colombia and Ecuador, the animal stays mostly in the trees which has helped keep the species relatively obscure to scientists until now, Helgen said.

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