WASHINGTON – Imagine a mini-raccoon with a teddy bear face that is so cute it’s hard to resist, let alone overlook. But somehow science did – until now.
Researchers announced Thursday a rare discovery of a new species of mammal called the olinguito. The reddish-brown animal is about 14 inches long with an equally long tail and weighs about 2 pounds.
It belongs to a grouping of large creatures that include dogs, cats and bears.
The critter leaps through the trees of mountainous forests of Ecuador and Colombia at night, according to a Smithsonian researcher who has spent the past decade tracking them.
But the adorable olinguito (oh-lihn-GEE’-toe) shouldn’t have been so hard to find. One of them once lived in the Smithsonian-run National Zoo in Washington for a year in a case of mistaken identity.
It’s been kind of hiding in plain sight for a long time despite its extraordinary beauty, said Kristofer Helgen, the Smithsonian’s curator of mammals.
The little zoo critter, named Ringerl, was mistaken for a sister species, the olingo. Before she died in 1976, Ringerl was shipped from zoo to zoo in Louisville, Ky., Tucson, Ariz., Salt Lake City, Washington and New York City to try to get it to breed with other olingos.
It turns out she wasn’t fussy, Helgen said. She wasn’t the right species.
It looks kind of like a fuzzball ... kind of like a cross between a teddy bear and a house cat, Helgen said.
It eats fruit and has one baby at a time. Helgen figures there are thousands of olinguitos in the mountainous forest, traveling through the trees at night which makes them hard to see.
While new species are found regularly, usually they are tiny things like insects. Outside experts said this discovery is not merely renaming something, but a genuine new species – with three new subspecies. It’s the type of significant find that hasn’t happened in the Americas for about 35 years.