Cute mammal update: the newly discovered olinguito

Hi, I'm an olinguito. Nice to meet you.

Hi, I'm an olinguito. Nice to meet you.

Just when we started to fear we were running out of animal memes, a new and oh-so-adorable mammal has been discovered to inspire more. ('Cause scientists' whole job is to keep our animated-gif game interesting, right?)

The olinguito—a furry li'l creature who has a teddy-bear like face and large eyes and weighs no more than a pineapple—was recently found in the cloud forests of Colombia and Ecuador. ("A teddy bear that lives in cloud forests?" my coworker, Zach Long, observed. "Sounds familiar.")

The olinguito is the smallest member of the raccoon family and eats mostly plants but is still part of Carnivora, the must well-studied taxonomic order. So why are we just discovering it in 2013—a time when we're able to explore far corners of the world via Google Earth, locate the rarest of rare records on someone's obscure music blog and "accidentally" stumble upon our ex-boyfriend's new girlfriend's LiveJournal from 1999? What we're really asking is: WHY HAVE WE BEEN DEPRIVED OF THIS CUTENESS 'TIL NOW? Well, the fuzzballs dwell in fog, and only come out at night to find food. They live solitary nocturnal lives in the Andean cloud forests.

Study leader Kristofer Helgen, who's curator of mammals at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, might not have located the olinguito if he hadn't spent time at Chicago's Field Museum. He was studying there when he opened a drawer and found skins of carnivores that caught his eye. "They were these rich, red skins with flowing fur," Helgen told National Geographic. The accompanying notes indicated that the skins were collected decades prior in the Andes, at elevations between 5,000–9,000 feet—higher than the already-known rainforest-dwelling species, olingo (which also happen to be less cute).

Thus, Helgen embarked on a ten-year search for a new unidentified species that ended this year. It's the first new carnivore discovery in the Western Hemisphere in 35 years and, predictably, the Internet is already embracing it.

"The age of discovery is not over," Helgen stated in the same National Geographic article. "In 2013 we have found this spectacular, beautiful animal, and there's a lot more to come."


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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)