A living teddy bear!
Last week, scientists reported the discovery of a new species of mammal in the cloud forests of the Andes that, many a media report proclaimed, looks like the adorable stuffed animal beloved of children. The olinguito (Bassaricyon neblina) belongs to a group of mammals called the olingos, who are related to raccoons and coatis (whose alternate names of snookum bear and hog-nosed coon give you an idea of what they look like).
Sadly, the olinguito has been discovered just at a time when its home, the cloud forests of Colombia and Ecuador, is highly threatened. Helgen estimates that at least 42 percent of the mammal’s forest habitat has already been destroyed due to agriculture and construction. The looks-like-a-cross-between-a-house-cat-and-a-teddy-bear mammal may already be on the road to extinction.
Ten years ago, Kristofer Helgen of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. and his colleagues started studying olingos, who are native to the rainforests of Central and South America. In examining specimens in museums, Helgen noted that some from high in the northern Andes mountain range – at 5,000 to 9,000 feet above sea level – were notably smaller and had tinier, differently-shaped teeth and skulls.
Olinguitos had been exhibited at American zoos as “miniature” olingos in the 1960s and 1970s. Helgen suspected the smaller animals were actually a separate species and traveled to the western slopes of the Andres to see the olinguitos in their native habitat.
He and his colleagues found the mostly nocturnal creatures and studied them extensively. Olinguitos, they learned, weigh about one kilogram, live mostly in trees and have only one baby at at a time. They mostly eat fruit, though they are carnivorous; in fact, they are the first carnivore species to be found on the American continents in 35 years.
Helgen hopes that the olinguito might become an “ambassador species” for the cloud forests of Columbia and Ecuador, to alert people to the need to preserve the region’s incredibly rich biodiversity in the face of human development. As he says:
The discovery of the olinguito shows us that the world is not yet completely explored, its most basic secrets not yet revealed. If new carnivores can still be found, what other surprises await us? So many of the world’s species are not yet known to science. Documenting them is the first step toward understanding the full richness and diversity of life on Earth.
Helgen is indeed planning his next “mission into the clouds” to see what other yet-unknown wildlife lives there.
It’s certainly exciting to learn about a new species, however cute it is (or not). Just as important is to take pause to consider how the olinguito was found, thanks to careful analysis and curation of old museum exhibits (containing, yes, the stuffed remains and bones of olinguitos), and to keep in mind that, as writer Philip Hoare points out, it’s a bit one-sided to say the olinguito is “new.”
The big-eyed creatures have been with us all along, after all. As Hoare notes, there’s a disturbing link between science revealing the wonders of the world and its denizens and us wasting no time in destroying them:
Once they’ve got you named, it can be a brief window between identification and disappearance, as 20th-century discoveries such as the okapi (1901) and the coelacanth(1938), both now reduced to threatened status, found out.
Can science protect the olinguito or will it, like too many other rare species, soon end up “caged in a street market, or its body parts prized for their aphrodisiac qualities?” Are TV crews from around the world already lining up to get their own exclusive coverage of olinguitos? Could their cuteness be their undoing and even lead to their destruction?
Photo via Wikimedia Commons