It was a case of mistaken identity. Ringerl was a beautiful, teddy bear-like animal with a long tail from South America. Her zoo-keepers had tried and tried to breed her with what they thought were identical-looking animals; so she travelled around to many zoos to find a mate that would catch her fancy. None did.
Now, 40 years later, scientists finally understand why.
Smithsonian scientists announced a newly discovered mammalian species on Thursday, August 15. Bassaricyon neblina, also named “olinguito” is a member of the raccoon family and has often been mistaken for its closely related cousin, the olingo.
Finding an undiscovered mammal in the 21st century is relatively rare, and that is why it is so surprising that the research team didn’t just discover one species of the olinguito.
“What is actually exciting about this discovery is that there are actually four different sub-species,” said Kristofer Helgen, curator of mammals at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. “This is actually shocking to discover four different sub-species for a member of the Carnivora family today.”
The reason this creature has remained so mysterious for so long is a combination of behavior and habitat, explained Helgen. The nocturnal olinguito is found high in tree canopies in the cloud forests of Ecuador and Colombia, and will rarely come down to the forest floor.
Helgen first noticed differences between the olinguita and the olinga while visiting museums- studying the coats and skulls of different collected specimens. “They were Smaller than olingos, red-panda red, with fur soft to the touch,” he said. “[And] the shape of the bones in the skull and the teeth were completely different.”
Helgen’s research took him to Ecuador, where he was finally able to record and collect genetic tests from the elusive olinguito himself. But running DNA in the database back at the lab, Helgen found something odd: the DNA was already there.
That is when the research team discovered Ringerl, or at least, her cells. Having died in the mid-70s without ever successfully mating, scientists froze some of her cells and recorded her DNA. Now Helgen can explain why she was so lonely—she was an entirely different species.
Despite being in the carnivore order, the olinguita is mainly an herbivore, preferring to eat on fruits from plants and trees. This is not the only “carnivore” species to evolve back to a plant-based diet: the most popular example being the giant panda.
But unlike its bamboo-loving relative, said Helgen, the olinguita is still a widespread species and not threatened with extinction…yet. Encroaching agriculture and urbanization has left only about a third of habitats that olinguitos can use.
“We hope that showing this beautiful animal to the world will draw attention to these cloud forests, these restricted and threatened habitats where many other different plants and animals can be found,” said Helgen.
Photo credit: Mark Gurney