Scientists have discovered the first new mammalian carnivore species in the Americas in 35 years, and it's being met with a resounding "Awww!" (CNN's headline includes the word "cute," while the AP goes with "adorable.") The olinguito "looks kind of like a fuzzball," says the Smithsonian's curator of mammals. "Kind of like a cross between a teddy bear and a house cat." Here's the weird part: Decades ago, an olinguito lived in the Smithsonian-run National Zoo for an entire year, but at the time it was thought to be a member of sister species olingo. Smithsonian scientists announced the discovery today.
The curator first noticed the difference between olingos and olinguitos while studying pelts and skeletons about 10 years ago; in 2006, he led a team to South America and found the new species "the very first night," a study co-author says. Even natives thought olingos and olinguitos were the same animal, since they remain in the trees of Colombia and Ecuador. But olinguitos (technical name: Bassaricyon neblina) are smaller than olingos, with rounder faces, shorter tails, smaller ears, and bushier fur; DNA analysis confirmed the two are not the same species. Olinguitos are the smallest members of the raccoon family at about 2.5 feet long from nose to tail and 2 pounds. (Another, not nearly as cute new species discovery: naked bone-eating worms in Antarctica.)