Monday, May 26, 2014

A brand-new species, sort of ...

When you hear about a newly-discovered animal species, it might conjure up images of an intrepid 19th-century British explorer, dressed in a tweed suit and a pith helmet, hacking through the jungle with a small team of porters, going for weeks or months without contact with "civilization."

But these days, new species are more likely to be discovered in a DNA lab than an uncharted wilderness. That was the case in August 2013, when zoologists announced the discovery of the olinguito, Bassaricyon neblina, a solitary, nocturnal member of the raccoon family that lives in the cloud forests of Ecuador and Colombia. Olinguitos are not really new, of course – and in fact they have been observed, captured, and even exhibited in zoos. But they were always thought to be olingos, a slightly larger and lighter-colored animal that lives in similar, although lower-elevation, habitats.

In one notable case, an adult female named Ringerl was transferred to zoos in at least five U.S. cities in repeated attempts to get her to breed with a male olingo. She wasn't just waiting for Mr. Right – she was waiting for the right species.

Then one day Kristofer Helgen, curator of mammals at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, was looking at some olingo skins and skulls at the Field Museum in Chicago, and found a few that just didn't seem to match the others. A thorough DNA analysis confirmed that he had, in fact, found a new species.

The olinguito's announcement came as I was preparing for a trip to the cloud forest myself, so naturally I hoped for the chance to photograph one – and in fact I did get that chance, one night in Tandayapa Valley, Ecuador.

Join me in Ecuador for a chance to see an olinguito yourself!

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