There's a new predator in town--but fortunately, it's an adorable one.
Actually, this animal has been around for 3 to 4 million years, prowling the cloud forests of Colombia and Ecuador, but had been overlooked by scientists until very recently. So let me introduce you to the olinguito, the first carnivorous mammal discovered in the Americas in 35 years. I might not have noticed the newly identified species either, if CNN hadn't blasted out a breaking news alert: "Smithsonian announces new species called olinguito and describes it as cross between house cat and teddy bear." Quick, tell your friends!
The olinguito is pretty cute, only about two pounds, and although it's a predator, this tree-dweller prefers fruit and insects. Bassaricyon neblina is a member of the raccoon family, which further certifies its adorability credentials. I mean, some of the olinguito's closest cousins are coatis and kinkajous. Its name even ends in "ito" which is Spanish for "cute lil' iddy-biddy thing." Or technically, cute lil' iddy-biddy olingo, which is another South American sweetheart that olinguitos have been mistaken for until now. The species has been hiding in plain sight for almost a century within museums and zoos. Several American zoos even spent years trying to get one female olinguito--olinguita?--to mate with an olingo. (It didn't take.)
Much to the relief of any other sexually-frustrated olinguitos in captivity, scientists from the Smithsonian Institution have finally brought their species to light, publishing their research today in the journal ZooKeys. The discovery was a decade in the making and the result of mission to better understand olingos. During their many expeditions into the woods, the biologists became aware of some key disparities between these non-kissing cousins; olinguitos, for example, have smaller skulls and teeth, longer and thicker fur, and of course, different DNA. Olinguitos also prefer living at higher elevations in the northern Andes Mountains.
Now that I've established this animal's pleasing aesthetic and traditional dating standards, let's get serious: how can we ensure that we can continue looking at and loving this animal far into the future? Though olinguitos are too new to science to be declared endangered, the fact that we have just become aware of their existence would suggest that there aren't so many out there. One thing we do know for sure is that development is threatening South America's cloud forests. Much of the olinguito's foggy habitat has been converted to farmland or cities, and the researchers estimate only 37 percent of the animal's historic habitat remains forested.
This little guy is an important reminder that we humans still have a lot to learn about our planet. If a face like this can fall under our radar for so long, what else is out there? Cute critter connoisseurs, as well as lovers of the scrumptiously ugly, deserve to know.
This story was originally published by OnEarth.