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Smithsonian researcher discovers new mammal species

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WASHINGTON -

A zoologist who works for the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. has identified the first new mammal to be described in the Western Hemisphere in 35 years.

It is a small raccoon-like creature living in higher-elevation rain forests in South America.

Smithsonian Zoologist Kristofer Helgen was studying members of the raccoon family that live in Andean nations in South America. Helgen and zoologist Lauren Helgen (now his wife), were looking at specimens in the Field Museum in Chicago.

"I was actually in the museum with him, photographing specimens for him," recalled Lauren. "And I hear him pull out the drawer [of specimens], and go, 'Wow. Lauren, you have to come look at this.'"

Kristofer suspected immediately he was looking at specimens of a previously undescribed new mammal. And -- get this -- he made the suspected discovery ten years ago.

"My team knows I like to be thorough," explained Kristofer Helgen, "and we wanted to know a lot more. I didn't just want to publish this animal and just introduce it to the world and only be able to show you some skins and some skulls on a table. I wanted to see what else we could figure out about this animal."

Helgen and his team went to the upper elevation rain forests of South America, where they found and photographed the two-pound, tree-dwelling creatures they have named olinguitos.

There is another twist to the story. They found evidence that an olinguito had been brought to the U.S. in the 1960s and the 1970s. An old black-and-white photograph shows the creature that was shuffled from one U.S. zoo to another (during that time period) in hopes of getting it to mate with other South American raccoon-like creatures.

The mating failed because it was an entirely different species: one we now call an olinguito.

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Online:

Smithsonian: http://smithsonianscience.org/2013/08/olinguito/

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