Scientists at the Smithsonian Institution say they have discovered a previously unrecognized species of mammal; a rare tree-dwelling carnivore that looks like "a cross between a house cat and a teddy bear." Awwwwww.
The olinguito is actually a genetic offshoot of the olingo, another small South American mammal that shares a taxonomic family with racoons and kinkajous. The close resemblance is actually the reason why it took so long to "discover" the creature. The olinguito has actually been seen and known about for over 100 years and has even been displayed in zoos, but was always misidentified as its look-alike cousin. (And not because people thought it was a barking lion.)
It was only through painstaking DNA analysis of most of the world's olingo specimens, that scientists were finally able to determine that this is indeed a distinct species. The discovery was led by Kris Helgen, head of mammals at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.
After studying it in the wild, researchers learned that the olinguiteo — or Bassaricyon neblina for those keeping track at home — "is mostly active at night, is mainly a fruit eater, rarely comes out of the trees and has one baby at a time." They live mostly alone in the Andean cloud forests of Ecuador and Colombia — they are excellent climbers and jumpers — and have already lost close to half its habitat due to human development.
Though mostly vegetarian it does eat insects, which makes the olinguito the first new carnivore species to be discovered in the Americas in 35 years. It may not be as camera-ready as the National Zoo's new tiger cubs, but we think Lil' Olinguito will get plenty of facetime on Cute Overload in the near future.