Can you imagine discovering an animal that no one knew existed? That’s what happened when scientists found a new species of animal living in the cloud forests of Colombia and Ecuador, in South America. They named it olinguito (oh•leen•GEE•toh) because it looks similar to an animal called the olingo. Olinguito is Spanish for “little olingo.”
The olinguito is the first new species of carnivore to be discovered in the Western Hemisphere in 35 years. Carnivores are a group of mammals that includes cats, dogs, weasels, and other related animals. Many carnivores are meat eaters, but the olinguito eats mostly fruit and nectar.
Adult olinguitos are about 2 ½ feet long and weigh only 2 pounds. They have reddish-brown fur and are the smallest members of the raccoon family. They live in trees and rarely climb down to the ground. They move through the forest by jumping from tree to tree. Olinguitos are also nocturnal animals, which means they are most active at night.
Scientists often find new species of plants and insects, but finding a new mammal is rare. Dr. Kristofer Helgen, the main scientist who discovered the olinguito, is a curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. He has identified other new animal species, but he says that the olinguito is his most important discovery.
When Dr. Helgen and zoologist Miguel Pinto first spotted the olinguito in the mountainous cloud forests, they were very excited. They were also surprised that no one had discovered the animal before. Even the local people seemed unaware of its existence.