It's been named olinguito (Spanish for "little olingo") and is the first new species of carnivore identified in the Western hemisphere in 35 years.
It's taken more than a decade to identify the mammal. The trail began when zoologist Kristofer Helgen uncovered some bones and animal skins stored in a Chicago museum: "It stopped me in my tracks. The skins were a rich red and when I looked at the skulls I didn't recognise the anatomy. It was different to any similar animal I'd seen, and right away I thought it could be a species new to science." Helgen is curator of mammals at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC, home to the world's largest mammal collection - more than 600,000 specimens. "The olinguito is a carnivore - the group of mammals that includes cats, dogs and bears and their relatives. Many of us believed that list was complete, but this is a new one."
The olinguito inhabits some protected areas from Central Colombia to western Ecuador. Though a carnivore, it eats mainly fruit, comes out at night and lives by itself, producing just one baby at a time. The animal was assumed to be an olingo, a grey-coloured mammal that looks like a raccoon-cat-teddybear hybrid. Scientists now believe an olinguito was exhibited in several US zoos between 1967-1976, but was mistaken for an olingo, a close relative.
Helgen: "The world is not yet explored and the age of discovery is far from over. This makes us think - what else is out there?"
It should also make us think: how long will the olinguito survive? Given its rarity, and that it resides in poacher-accessible forests which are currently exploited despite laws to the contrary, will man respect this new discovery... or drive another creature to the brink of extinction?