The Emergence of the Olinguito: Hope for Monster Hunters?
29 Aug, 2013
The most renowned naturalist of all time, Charles Darwin, once wrote that “all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service.” It’s a quote that one of the most renowned naturalists of our time, the late Stephen Jay Gould, was especially fond of, and while it can be a rallying cry to carefully consider all data before reaching a conclusion, it fails to address a particularly prickly predicament. What if that observation is claimed as support by both opposing sides of an issue?
A Little Guy with Big Implications
The scientific world was stunned on August 15, and lolcats everywhere cowered in comparison to the covert cuteness of the world’s newest carnivore, the olinguito. The existence of the devastatingly adorable, teddy bear-faced raccoon relative was revealed in the pages of ZooKeys, a journal on biodiversity, and was announced to the public by lead author Kristofer Helgen of the Smithsonian Institute. The 2-pound tree-dweller of South America’s Andes Mountains is the first undiscovered member of its order to be identified since its neighbor, the Colombian Weasel, 35 years ago.
The Colombian Weasel hides from detection… not so well.
“The discovery of the olinguito shows us that the world is not yet completely explored, its most basic secrets not yet revealed,” Helgen declared. “If new carnivores can still be found, what other surprises await us? So many of the world’s species are not yet known to science.”
Good news for the cryptozoologists I’ve previously maligned, right?! What an endorsement! If the olinguito could elude detection, why not other novel mammals, like Bigfoot? “Look how much we don’t know about the planet! New species are out there if only science wasn’t so closed-minded and looked at the evidence,” one blog post exulted. Okay. Let’s take a look at that evidence, and see just how the fuzzy little starlet made his way into the limelight.
In contrast, Bigfoot is a hide-and-seek champion.
From Old Clutter to New Critter
Kristofer Helgen began his quest for the olinguito not deep in the forest, but buried in museum specimens. And he wasn’t even looking for anything new. Helgen simply wanted to catalog all the world’s available remains of the olingo, a known animal, when he began to notice some skulls and pelts originally attributed to the olingo displayed drastically different morphology, so different that he hypothesized they could be from another, undocumented species. DNA sequencing eventually confirmed his suspicion, something Melba Ketchum’s “Bigfoot DNA” failed to do.
Is it any wonder interesting artifacts can get lost in the shuffle?
Stumbling over some musty carcasses wasn’t satisfying enough for Helgen and his team, though. So in 2006 they went out into the “cloud forests” of South America to see if olinguitos were still living in the treetops, the olingo’s natural habitat. And they found them! On the VERY FIRST NIGHT! The Smithsonian scientists were able to do the same kinds of genetic testing on live specimens obtained in the wild and found that the little buggers are alive and well in both Colombia and Ecuador. How does the giant, land-dwelling Bigfoot still elude detection while the foot-long, arboreal olinguito hides in plain sight?
The olinguito finds the cameraman finding him.
Still Awesome, Even if Not Fantastic
The tale of the olinguito is not as heartening for cryptozoologists as on first blush. This wasn’t a case of seeing something completely novel in the wilderness, but of discriminating between similar, already-obtained specimens in a collection. “The vast majority of the discoveries of new species are made in museum collections,” president of the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections, Chris Norris, told the BBC.
Additionally, the ease with which the nocturnal creature was found (once someone actually set out to look for it) kinda makes you wonder what’s taking all those Animal Planet Bigfoot “experts” so damn long. Worse, the olinguito may have been right under our noses the whole time. Unknowingly keeping a misidentified individual in captivity could explain why that one “olingo” would never mate with any others….
Reading beyond the headlines, the observation of the olinguito does not support the view that large, completely unknown animals roam specific portions of the Earth. That doesn’t mean there aren’t still wonderful things waiting to be discovered. One Canadian study posits that up to 86% of all living species remain unclassified.
But those are mostly invertebrates and fungi. The same paper states that we’ve got nearly every bird and mammal pinned down. Big things are easy to find; it’s the little ones that can give us the slip. That should still be exciting for anyone interested in biodiversity, even if we’re not likely to uncover a fantasy Savage Land full of mightier beasts.