With patience, hundreds of spectacular birds, butterflies, frogs, and even Spectacled Bear can be seen in the cloud forests of Ecuador but one animal was so elusive that it eluded discovery even after several visits by experienced researchers. This animal is known as the Olinguito (Bassaricyon neblina) and it has the claim to fame of being the first new carnivore to be described from the Americas in more than 35 years.
New discoveries of mammals usually come in the form of bats or small rodents because those animals are easy to overlook, can be difficult to identify, and a species can occupy a small range. However, in the case of the Olinguito, we are talking about an arboreal mammal around the same size as a house cat. Unlike mice or bats, it’s in the same family as the Northern Raccoon and is therefore also a carnivore! Carnivores tend not to escape detection because compared to herbivores, there are fewer species, and they tend to have large distributions. The Olinguito does range over a wide area but it shares two key things in common with animals that tend to escape the gaze of exploring biologists: (1) this furry creature only comes out at night in foggy, dense cloud forests, and (2) it doesn’t look very different from other species of Olingos.
In fact, the Olinguito looked so much like related species that incorrectly labeled specimens are found in several museums and one was even kept at a zoo without anyone realizing that they had an undescribed species on their hands. The preliminary discovery happened when expert mammalogist Kristofer Helgensaw a few of those Olinguito specimens in collections of the Chicago Field Museum while he was studying the distribution of Olingo species. His practiced eyes noticed a reddish brown pelt instead of grayish fur shown by other Olingos and he immediately realized that he was looking at a probable undescribed species. After checking the mammal collections in other museums, he found several other specimens and became convinced that they pertained to a “new” species when skull measurements differed dramatically from those of known Olingos. In addition to that distinct reddish-brown fur, the strange new animal had a smaller, more rounded head, and was also collected at higher elevations than other Olingos.
A field expedition was mounted to visit cloud forests in Ecuador where many of the specimens had been collected and the researchers quickly understood why other biologists had failed to find the creature in the wild. Night in the cloud forests of western Ecuador is typically accompanied by thick mist and rain that makes it very difficult to study (or even glimpse) animals. However, Helgen and the other field biologists had the advantage of knowing that the Olinguito was probably present so instead of going back inside and calling it a night, they waited until the fog lifted enough to catch the eyeshine of animals in their headlamps. Not long after, they actually saw a few likely Olinguitos and after procuring a specimen, realized that they had indeed made a major discovery as they looked at a definite Olinguito in the hand.
As it turns out, this “new” mammal has been confirmed as living in several cloud forest areas of western Ecuador and Colombia. Nevertheless, researchers were sobered to realize that nearly 40% of its habitat has been deforested and thus destroyed. Helgen and other researchers involved with the discovery of the Olinguito hope that news about the animal will garner attention for the need to protect the rich cloud forests of Ecuador and Colombia. Although it will be tough to see, visitors to Ecuador will be happy to know that this rare animal has been sighted near Santa Lucia, Bellavista, two commonly visited cloud forest ecolodges just a couple hours from Quito.