Although olinguitos have been spotted in the cloud forests of the northern Andes — in rain forests at elevations of 5,000 to 9,000 feet above sea level — scientists speculate that the animals also might live elsewhere in Central and South America.
Zoologist DeeAnn M. Reeder of Bucknell University, co-curator of a scientific database of mammals, finds the olinguito to be an “extraordinarily beautiful animal” and says that to describe a new carnivore in the 21st century is “special and amazing.”
Scientists at the Smithsonian say they have discovered a new animal which looks like a cross between a house cat and a teddy bear and is found in the forests of Columbia and Ecuador.
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“This gets people excited about science and museum work, and about the things you can discover,” she said.
Reeder said many newly described species come from older museum collections that were never examined closely, but that “in no way makes them less valid or less exciting than catching something in the field for the very first time.”
Other discoveries often have been known to indigenous peoples for hundreds if not thousands of years, but not the olinguito. Helgen could find no one who knew anything about the animal, and no native names exist, even though its population is estimated to be in the tens of thousands.
The number also puts the little creature safely out of the endangered zone — for now. More than 40 percent of its historic habitat has been converted to agriculture or urban areas, the study has found.
“The cloud forest is really a magical place with figs and clouds and cool vegetation,” Kays said. He calls it “a real crucible of evolution” whose isolation has promoted a vast diversification of animals.
Ecologist and conservationist Gerardo Ceballos at the National Autonomous University of Mexico said the finding was “rather remarkable” and added that the discovery of such new mammals is part of a trend.
“It is kind of scary because it says we know very little,” Ceballos said, noting that about 15 to 20 percent of all mammalian species have been discovered in the past 15 years. Much of that is due to new genetic tools and field technology that enables automated remote equipment to nab a look at elusive critters.