Photo: Mark Gurney/Smithsonian
It's been a little over a week since the world was introduced to the olinguito, the world's most recently-described carnivore and the first mammalian carnivore discovered in the Americas in 35 years. The discovery has made an international superstar out of the teddy bear-like, previously-neglected species.
But the discovery has also placed a bit of an increased spotlight on taxonomy in general and the team behind the study. By now you've probably heard that the National Zoo once had an olinguito, and numerous samples have turned up in museum collections, and the new species—which has obviously been doing its thing all this time—has highlighted the essential question of taxonomy: When do we call a species its own?
The Smithsonian's Kristofer Helgen spearheaded the project, but he got plenty of help from Ecuadorian mammologist Miguel Pinto, who happened to be in Quito to announce the discovery of the little guy, on break from his studies at New York's American Museum of Natutral History, where he's studying comparative genomics. I tracked him down in Quito to talk about olinguitos, taxonomy, and his previous work trying to discover a new type of North American bear.
Motherboard: Tell me how you originally got involved with this project.
Miguel Pinto: Kristofer Helgen at the Smithsonian Institute started with the idea of doing a taxonomic review of olingos because it was a poorly established group. We didn't know how many species there were. There were five different names assigned them, but many of those were from the same mountain range in Costa Rica, and there were only a couple specimens for each of those available names. It was dubious. It seemed like all of the olingos could have been from the same species.
So we started with those specimens and realized there were two groups of olingos: There was a group of large olingos and then there were smaller ones that didn't have any reference in the literature. They didn't have any names, and it was clear at that point that those specimens were completely different and deserved species status.
Kris could have gone ahead and done the description based on museum specimens and it would have been totally fine, but he wanted more evidence. He wanted DNA evidence and he also wanted to see what the current status of the population was to make the paper strong. He got the idea to do a field expedition to see if we could find these.
That's where you came in?
Yes, this was the end of 2004.
What was your expertise at the time that made Kris seek you out?
At the moment I was finishing my undergrad at the Universidad Catolica here in Quito. Some months before that i was doing an internship at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. I met Kris there and he knew I would be a good contact for the expeditions in Ecuador.
I did the spearhead expeditions to different sites in the western side of the Andes. I went to the Otonga Forest with a big spotlight and a video camera.
Did you expect to find them at that point or was that just a shot in the dark?
I believed it was going to be hard. But the first night I was in Otonga, I found it. I took a very short walk by the forest and I started listening to these animals. I believed they were kinkajous. I saw this little thing jumping from branch to branch on the tree. I took short few seconds of video, and that was enough for me to see it was an olinguito. It has these faint rings around the tail, and I was comfortable it was an olinguito, so we decided to look there.
With my good luck I saw it. That was pretty cool to get it on the first day.
How did you decide the Otonga Forest would be a good place to look for olingos? Were there records of olingos there?
There were actually no records of olingos there. However, all these animals of the night animals have been called here in Ecuador "tutomonos," which means "night monkeys." In that group there's kinkajous, olingos, and some small monkeys. People go with a flashlight in the trees and all they see are these bright eyes. They make these loud noises and people cannot differentiate the noises and they know they eat fruits, so they call all of them tutomonos.
The records from Otonga Forest suggested there'd be kinkajous. But still, because it was a cloud forest and we know cloud forest are a good habitat for olinguitos, we looked there. There are other localities nearby where several decades ago people collected olinguitos for museums. We knew that these cloud forests would be a decent habitat. With my good luck I saw it. That was pretty cool to get it on the first day.
Ecuador's Otonga Forest, where the olinguito was discovered. Photo: Fundacion Otonga.
Where else did you look?
I tried another reserve far away, we did a long walk, and I didn't see it there. We walked a couple nights in the forest and we didn't even hear anything. There were no olingos and no kinkajous, so it was a bit of a waste. We decided to focus only in the Otonga.
It was a fairly short survey, only two weeks, but it was intense. We did a quick expedition to a non-protected area called La Cantera. We also saw olinguitos there, but the bad part of it is that the forest is pretty much gone there. There is a patch of forest on one side, but when we saw the olinguito, it was in an open space. I think the reason we saw it is because there were very few trees, so it was easy to spot.
The paper has been out a little more than a week now and it had everyone talking about it. Did you expect the response you've gotten?
We didn't expect that. Most of the reaction is for the public relations office of the Smithsonian Institution. They've been working really hard putting the news all over the place. Because it was a big team, we were able to do press conferences in three places at once, in Washington, DC, North Carolina, and here in Quito. It was good because the PR office was limited to the US and international agencies. But local newspapers got our own package from Quito. We got a really good response.
They wouldn't make good pets because they're nocturnal. You'd be sleeping and they'd run all over the house making problems.
I think we got it because this is not normal news. It's not a story about local politicians or something, it's about a cool little thing that looks like a teddy bear.
That doesn't hurt. So speaking of teddy bears, would the olinguito make a good pet?
This question has come up, and no, they wouldn't make good pets because they're nocturnal. You'd be sleeping and they'd run all over the house making problems.
OK, so no pets. But they're related to coatis and raccoons which thrive in urban areas. Do you think the olinguito could survive there too?
Not so much in an urban area but maybe in an interface between agriculture and forest. In La Cantera, it's exactly that. You have a pastureland and a place with a few trees. It seems like yes, they have some resilience to habitat disturbance, which is good for the olinguitos.
When you worked at the Smithsonian, were there lots of samples there people had never worked on? Is this a good way to go about finding new species?
When I was there, I was working on trying to classify species of bear. So no, there were not lots of samples of bears, just one individual. We thought that maybe this bear cub had characteristics of black bear and also of brown bear. It was interesting.
We couldn't say either way. We had the feeling it could be a hybrid bear. But what we did was compare it with dozens of specimens of black and brown bear they have there. They have one of the best bear collections in the world. So my project was a good experience but it remains unsolved.
You said this was a review of all of the olingos. Are there any other species coming soon from your work?
No, this is was a thorough review. We have four species of olingo: One is mostly in Costa Rica and Panama, we have the western lowland olingo in coastal Ecuador and Colombia, we have the eastern lowland olingo in the western side of the Amazon basin from Bolivia, Brazil, Peru, and Ecuador—that has the largest distribution—and the last one is the olinguito.
Is this the first time you've worked on classifying a species?
It's not the first time, but it's been the most thorough. The first time was in 2004 with a friend of mine who passed away before we published the paper. But this guy did studies on bats and rats in Otonga—on one occasion, i was his field assistant in Yasuni, where we caught a bat. This bat was something that we hadn't seen before. We took some measurements and only with the morphology we were able to determine it was a new species. We called it Lophostoma Yasuni.
That was my first introduction to taxonomic work with mammals. From there I stopped because I was interested in parasites of mammals. Recently, after the olinguito, I have been working on identifying a marsupial species that will come out in the Journal of Mammology. There's also a rat that needs to be described, also from the Otonga Forest.
A lot has been made of the fact there hasn't be a carnivorous mammal found in the Americas in 35 years. Does that mean anything to you or is it just something that sounds nice on a press release?
Of course. It's really an honor and it's surprising we found this animal. Several people have taken pictures but it was always misclassified. It's exciting that this systematic work actually paid off. It was the right question to ask. The olingos have always been a neglected group in terms of studies. I think we tackled the right group to study and the surprises came forth so that's really neat.