Sunday, August 18, 2013

Misidentified mammal

You may have seen pictures in the news recently of a newly found and very charismatic creature which lives in the cloud forests of the Andes in South America. While still exceedingly newsworthy because it is the first new mammal identified in the Americas in 35 years, the discovery of the olinguito (Bassaricyon neblina) occurred in a museum. Kristopher Helgen, curator of mammals at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, was at Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History scouring their collection for examples of the raccoon-like olingo (SLIDESHOW HERE). "...I pulled out a drawer, and there were these stunning, reddish-brown long-furred skins. They stopped me in my tracks—they weren't like any olingo that had been seen or described anywhere," he explains. He then pursued a new goal of meticulously cataloguing and examining the world’s olingo specimens and found after visiting 18 museums collections, which contained roughly 95% of the preserved fur and skulls, that nearly 2 dozen had been mislabeled. Helgen has now presented anatomical and DNA evidence to establish the olinguito as a separate species, but not before seeing one in the wild for himself. He and his colleagues made an expedition to Ecuador, with admirable results: "The very first evening, the very first night that we were there, there in the trees, maybe about 10 meters up, was the first olinguito that we were able to see."

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