Olinguito

Olinguito Credit: Getty

In the remote cloud forests of the Northern Andes, Smithsonian scientists have discovered the first new carnivore species to be identified in the Americas in 35 years.

The "olinguito" (bassaricyon neblina), which weighs only two pounds when fully grown, is related to raccoons, coatis, kinkajous and olingos, and looks like a cross between a teddy bear and a baby red panda. The arboreal mammal feeds primarily on fruit, but also eats insects and nectar. Olinguitos have one baby at a time and are primarily active at night.

The olinguito - which was mistakenly confused for years with olingos or kinkajous - was discovered in 2006, but scientists have been researching and performing DNA tests since then to make sure the species is distinct, said Smithsonian zoologist Lauren Helgen.

Twenty to 30 new species of mammals are discovered each year "but they're mostly rats and bats," said Helgen. The biggest threats to olinguito, which has been found in Columbia and Ecuador, but may also be in Venezuela and Peru, is deforestation (about 42% of its habitat has already been converted to agriculture or urban areas) and global warming. Global warming means less moisture in the cloud cover "and if the clouds burn off, the trees and fruit they rely on won't be able to grow any more," Helgen said.

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