Hiding among the cloud-soaked forests of the Andes Mountains lives an elusive mesocarnivore that has evaded scientific discovery until recently. The olinguito was originally believed to be one of the species belonging to the olingo genus Bassaricyon. Although they share the same genus for the moment, olinguitos were morphologically and genetically proven to be a separate species from the olingos in 2013. The similarity in name between the two species originated due to the olinguito being the smallest member of the olingo family, hence the Spanish-derived “ito” suffice to mean smaller. This recent discovery of the new olinguito species has biologists scrambling to learn more about this secretive tree-dwelling relative of the raccoon.
Somewhat resembling a fisher from North America, the olinguito has an elongated body with short legs, but the head is rounder and more compact than the mustelids. Their thick, plush fur is reddish brown with black highlighted tips and uniformly covers the entire body. With an average weight of only two pounds and a body length of around 14 inches, olinguitos are one of the smallest tree-dwelling mammals. Both males and females are approximately the same size and color. Their fur-covered tail typically matches the length of their body and although not prehensile, it does assist with balance as olinguitos travel through the forest canopy.
Olinguitos have several other adaptations for nocturnal movements within the canopy, such as large eyes which improve night vision and allow for excellent depth perception. Their sharp, sturdy claws provide traction among the branches, while their dense fur protects them from the cold, humid nights of high-elevation mountains. Finally, the short, rounded ears of olinguitos resemble a bear, hence their nickname the “teddy bear cat”.
This newly found species only exists in a small region of the Andes Mountains in South America. Populations are believed to be spread throughout the remote forests of Western Columbia and Northern Ecuador, but nowhere else in the world. Preferring the cloud forests between 4,500 and 9,000 feet in elevation, olinguitos live far from most humans. The difficult terrain and their nocturnal habits further complicate locating these shy creatures, explaining why they went undetected by science for hundreds of years.
Now that researchers are aware of olinguito populations, the race is on to determine the extent of critical habitat needed to preserve the species. Deforestation has already taken a heavy toll on native habitats and continues unchecked in most of South America. Although the perimeter of their range is not yet known, biologists all agree olinguitos heavily depend upon healthy tree canopies. Both morphological adaptations and foraging techniques support their critical dependence upon trees. Astonishingly, it is rare to ever see an olinguito on the forest floor; apparently, they live exclusively in the forest canopy their entire life.
Since olinguitos have only recently been discovered, plus are so difficult to study due to their remote habitat, not much is known of their reproductive biology. So far, field observations show olinguitos are likely solitary most of their lives. We do not currently know how mates find one another within the dense canopy or their courting behavior.
One unique reproductive characteristic we do know about olinguitos is that they only have two mammae, compared to the six possessed by their cousin, the raccoon. This mammalian anatomical anomaly, coupled with field observations, makes biologists believe that olinguitos only have one young at a time. Such a low replacement rate would mean the population is fragile and could be decimated quickly by disturbance. Some captive olinguitos have lived up to 25 years, but life expectancy in the wild remains unknown.
Preliminary field studies have shown olinguitos primarily feed upon fruit; a trait known as frugivorous. Multiple types of tree fruit are available within the Andes cloud forests, likely promoting their evolved diet. We also know they drink nectar from flowers and hunt down many varieties of insects, all of which provide ample calories. There is great suspicion that olinguitos raid bird nests for eggs, and possibly even catch small birds when able. Even though considered omnivorous like all other mesocarnivores, fruit still seems to comprise a large majority of their sustenance. Further studies are needed to accurately decipher the complete diet of this arboreal Procyon.
We know even less about which species of predators might prey upon olinguitos. To date, no observed predation has been recorded, nor evidence of such in the fecal composition of local carnivores. Still, with several potential predator candidates existing in the Andes, logic would assume the olinguito provides nourishment to one of them on occasion. Speckled bears and South American foxes roam the forest floors, while stealthy puma navigate both the canopy and surface seeking prey within the range of olinguito. Probability suggests one of these predators would come across olinguitos at some point, but what happens next is still to be seen…
Although not much is known about the activities of these secretive smallest members of the raccoon family, nearly all their time is spent in the canopy of the forest. The ample moisture and temperate climate of the Andes grow tall trees with a network of branches intertwined high above the forest floor. This dense canopy provides transportation across large expanses without ever touching the ground and olinguitos seem to use this method of travel, probably to avoid predators. Researchers have witnessed these skilled climbers leap from tree to tree producing a rapid and efficient transit through the seemingly impenetrable array of branches.
Olinguitos tend to be nocturnal in their activity patterns. They spend nights searching for fruit among the canopy, where not only darkness conceals them, but also the low-elevation clouds that form within the mountainous forests every night. The combination of these concealment factors is likely the main reason why the species has remained hidden from science for so long. By day, olinguitos can be seen curled up sleeping among the branches, waiting for their nocturnal camouflage to return.
INTERACTIONS WITH HUMANS
Given that humans have just found olinguitos exist, the species has not had much impact on our society. However, humans have conducted massive clearing of forests for agriculture, which is a leading threat to the olinguito habitat. Once the species was found, conservationists went to work determining the potential habitat range of this selective cloud-forest canopy dweller. Once suitable habitat was mapped, the future of olinguitos immediately became concerning. Of all the ranges where olinguitos could survive, 42% have already been logged or converted to urban sprawl!
Another factor that complicates conservation efforts is the fact no one knows how many olinguitos exist. Their nocturnal habits and remote habitat complicate field studies to monitor population numbers and trends. For all these reasons, the International Union for Conservation of Nature lists olinguitos as Near Threatened on their Red List. Furthermore, until more accurate population counts can be confirmed, the IUCN predicts olinguito populations are likely decreasing at the same rate as the deforestation occurring to their habitat. Some recent studies predict only 37% of the olinguito’s original habitat remains intact! Fast conservation action is necessary to protect the last remaining suitable habitat for this fascinating arboreal mesocarnivore.
The discovery of a new mammal species is a rare occurrence. A carnivorous mammal discovery is even more extraordinary. The olinguito was the first mammalian mesocarnivore to be found in the New World since 1978 but may face impending extinction if unchecked logging continues to destroy their unique habitat. Inadequate conservation safeguards by South American governments, coupled with a low olinguito reproductive rate, further complicate the fate of the species. Fast action to determine accurate population counts and critical habitat designation must first occur so proper conservation management plans can be developed. Without efforts to stave off the continued decline of olinguitos, we could witness the extinction of a species that we just realized shares this Earth with us. What a tragedy that would be…
For further reading:
IUNC Red List: Olinguito
The Andes Mountain Biome
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PHOTO CREDIT: Mark Gurney, CC BY 3.0