16 Aug 2013

First new carnivore mammal for 30 years discovered

10:53 am on 16 August 2013

Scientists in the United States have discovered a new species of mammal - a raccoon-sized creature with a teddy bear face called the olinguito.

The animal lives in the mountainous forests of Ecuador and Colombia, and for more than a century was mistaken for its larger close cousin, the olingo.

Researchers at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC examined teeth, skull and skin specimens and have now confirmed that it is a new species; the first New World carnivore to be identified for 35 years.

The trail began when zoologist Kristofer Helgen uncovered some bones and animal skins in storage at a museum in Chicago.

"It stopped me in my tracks," he told BBC News. "The skins were a rich red colour and when I looked at the skulls I didn't recognise the anatomy. It was different to any similar animal I'd seen, and right away I thought it could be a species new to science."

Dr Helgen is curator of mammals at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC, which houses the largest mammal collection in the world.

More than 600,000 specimens are flat-packed in trays to save space, their bones picked clean by specially bred beetles and stored in boxes alongside their skins.

Many were collected more than a century ago and were often mislabelled or not properly identified. But recent advances in technology have enabled scientists to extract DNA from even the oldest remains.

But even after identifying the olinguito, a crucial question remained: could they be living in the wild?

Researchers used used clues from the specimens about where they might have come from and to predict what kind of forest they might inhabit and found the olinguito lives in a number of protected areas from Central Colombia to western Ecuador.

Although it is a carnivore, it eats mainly fruit, comes out at night and lives by itself, producing just one baby at a time.

The last carnivore to be identified in the Americas was the Colombian Weasel.