(Photo: Mark Gurney via AP)
Doug Stanglin , USA TODAY
A Smithsonian zoologist announced Thursday the "spectacular" discovery of a new mammal species -- the olinguito -- a small member of the raccoon family that lives in the Andes.
"You have not seen an animal quite like this before," Kris Helgen, curator of mammals at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, told reporters in Washington.
The olinguito (Bassaricyon neblina) is from the olingo family, a bushy-tailed tree-dwelling carnivore. The olinguito is also a carnivore, but eats mainly fruits.
The olinguito, striking with its big eyes and orange-brown fur, is the first carnivorous species to be discovered in 35 years.
"The discovery of the olinguito shows us that the world is not yet completely explored, its most basic secrets not yet revealed," he said.
Helgen said his team discovered the animal, which is part of the raccoon family, living in the canopy of the tall trees in the mountains of Colombia and Ecuador.
He said the species "was completely overlooked by all zoologists until now."
Helgen said his team first saw the animal in the Andes in 2006 and have been constructing its family history eversince.
"We saw olinguitos a number of times [in the wild]. ...It was real, it was alive, it was in the wild," he said.
Helgen said he was also announcing four subspecies of the oligiguito. He said the animal thrives in its cloud-forest habitat in the Andes and is not considered an endangered species.
The zoologist also said an olinguito had actually been held in zoos in the U.S. several years ago, but no one realized it was a new species. He did say that zookeepers that he has since contacted noted at the time that the animal was never able to mate with an olingo.
That was why the animal was sent to various zoos in hopes it would mate.
The announcement at the Smithsonian castle coincided with the publication of the discovery in ZooKeys, a journal on biodiversity.
Helgen's team writes in the journalist that this Andean endemic species "has never been been previously described (and) it represents a new species in the order Carnivora and is the smallest living member of the family Procyonidae."
The article says the biology of the new species was based on information from museum specimens, niche modeling, and fieldwork in western Ecuador."