Today, new species of mammals are often discovered in the more remote areas of our planet, and most of them are small animals, such as shrews, bats or rodents. To discover a new carnivore is an exceptional feat, and especially in the Americas. In fact, scientists haven’t discovered a carnivore in the Americas in 35 years! Recently, however, the “olinguito” was revealed as a new species in the raccoon family, although it was first noticed years ago in the collections at The Field Museum.
In 2003, scientist Kristofer Helgen, Curator of Mammals at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, set out on a quest to take a careful look at a raccoon-like animal called an olingo and clear up the ambiguities in its description; a process commonly called a “review”. Reviews are needed because our understanding of the diversity of a animal group isn’t always entirely clear. Sometimes, critical features of a key specimen can be missed, or misinformation that’s been overlooked can become part of the permanent record. It’s a lot like the game of telephone, where a message can morph over time as it travels through different people.
Thus, it is necessary for experts to review a species from time to time, examining collections of specimens in museums all over the world in order to clarify nomenclature and complete their descriptions.
When Helgen arrived at the Field Museum to take a look at the olingos in the Mammals Collection, he was surprised to find that there were a few that did not look at all like what he expected. These olingos had fur that was much longer and redder than he’d ever seen. Over the next few years, Helgen gathered evidence to support his idea that there was an undescribed species of olingo hiding in plain sight at The Field Museum. This olingo had a smaller skull and different teeth than the olingos that had already been identified.
Helgen didn’t stop there; he teamed up with Field Museum associates in the Ecuadorian Andes Mountains, and successfully located more “olinguitos”, as Helgen called them. Helgen was also able to help a local zoo determine the reason their olingos weren’t breeding – one of them was an olinguito!
These collections are anything but junk drawers; the fact that the olinguito had been hiding in plain sight all along goes to show just how important the Museum’s collections are to future research. With new information becoming available every day, who knows what other exciting discoveries we might make down the road by continually re-examining the objects in our care!