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Brief Summary

The Olinguito (Bassaricyon neblina) was not formally described as a distinct species until 2013, at which time it became not only the most recently described olingo (as species in the genus Bassaricyon are generally known), but also the first carnivore species to be described from the Western Hemisphere in 35 years.

Olinguitos are found in the wet Andean cloud forests of Colombia and Ecuador, a habitat association that is referenced by the specific epithet neblina, derived from the Spanish word for fog. Like other olingos, they are arboreal and mainly nocturnal and found in forests of the northern Neotropics. Along with the several other species in the genus Bassaricyon, the Olinguito is a member of the New World mammal family Procyonidae, which also includes the Kinkajou (Potos flavus) and several species of raccoons (Procyon), coatis (Nasua and Nasuella), and ringtails (Bassariscus). At just under a kilo (around two pounds), with a head and body length of around 355 mm (about 14 inches) plus a measured tail length of 335 to 424 mm (around 13 to 17 inches), the Olinguito is the smallest procyonid. Males and females are similar in size.

The first evidence of the distinctiveness of the Olinguito came from analyses of old museum specimens undertaken as part of a broad study of olingo diversity (Helgen et al. 2013). Some specimens examined were found to differ from known olingos in a number of features, including (among others) their smaller and differently shaped skull and teeth, their overall smaller size, their different body proportions, their more rounded face with a blunter and less tapering muzzle, their smaller and more heavily furred external ears, their longer and denser and more colorful coat, and their occurrence at elevations much higher than those at which olingos were known to live (olingos were previously unknown from above 2000 meters, whereas the Olinguito has been documented from elevations between 1500 and 2750 meters). Helgen et al. (2013) discuss the discrimination of the Olinguito in detail. An expedition to search for these distinctive olingos in the wild was successful and field studies revealed basic information about their biology.

Interestingly, the discoverers of the Olinguito noted that specimens had been in museum cabinets for more than a century, that the karyotype had been published, and that Olinguitos had been previously included in published molecular phylogenetic studies--all under other names. A female Olinguito from near Cali, Colombia, was apparently exhibited at the Louisville Zoo, National Zoo, Tucson Zoo, Bronx Zoo, and possibly Salt Lake City Zoo (all in the United States) during the late 1960s and 1970s and consistently failed to breed with other captive olingos--with hindsight, it now seems likely that this breeding failure was because the other olingos belonged to different species. This individual reportedly made vocalizations different from those of other olingos (Poglayen-Neuwall 1976, cited in Helgen et al. 2013). Other Olinguitos may also have been (unknowingly) exhibited in zoos over the years. Evidence from a specimen label at the American Museum of Natural History in New York indicates that at least one zoologist in the early 20th century believed that an Olinguito museum specimen was so unusual that it might represent a new species, but no species description was ever published. The mammal order Carnivora is generally considered to be among the most taxonomically well known groups of organisms, making the discovery of new carnivores especially noteworthy. The Olinguito was presumably overlooked by taxonomists for several reasons, including its nocturnal and arboreal habits, its relatively limited geographic distribution, and the fact that only a small number of specimens have been collected (and these specimens are scattered among various museum collections).

Olinguitos eat mainly fruit, but may also consume some insects and nectar. They are apparently largely solitary and females are believed to raise just a single offspring at a time. They are adept jumpers, leaping from tree to tree in the forest canopy. Phylogenetic analyses indicate that the Olinguito is the evolutionary sister group to all the other olingos.

The Olinguito is known only from high elevation cloud forests of the northern Andes Mountains, in Ecuador and Colombia. The future of the Olinguito may be precarious. The researchers reporting its discovery estimated that 42% of suitable historic Olinguito habitat had already been converted to agriculture or urban areas and an additional 21% remained in natural but largely unforested conditions, highlighting the importance of protecting what remains of the special cloud forest habitat that is so critical to the survival of this and many other species (Helgen et al 2013 and references therein). It is perhaps noteworthy that the last new New World carnivore to be described prior to the Olinguito, the Colombian Weasel (Mustela felipei), was described in 1978 from similar habitat in the same region of the Andes.

(Helgen et al. 2013 and references therein)

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© Shapiro, Leo

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