he olinguito: A new addition to the animal kingdom - Today's news, tomorrow's lesson - 16 August

For the first time in 35 years, a newly discovered carnivorous mammal living in the Western hemisphere has become an official member of the animal kingdom. And, after a case of mistaken identity spanning half a century, it is not before time.

Today's news, tomorrow's lesson - 16 August

The olinguito: A new addition to the animal kingdom

By Stephen Exley

For the first time in 35 years, a newly discovered carnivorous mammal living in the Western hemisphere has become an official member of the animal kingdom. And, after a case of mistaken identity spanning half a century, it is not before time.

The “olinguito” is a reddish-brown coloured relative of the raccoon and lives in the cloud forests of Colombia and Ecuador.

It has taken a decade of research to confirm that the creature, which grows to around 14 inches long, is a new species in its own right. This is all the more surprising when you learn that an olinguito was exhibited in several US zoos between 1967 and 1976.

The unfortunate female in question, Ringerl, was shipped from zoo to zoo, working her way from Kentucky, through Arizona, Utah and Washington DC to New York, where she eventually died, as zookeepers tried in vain to get her to mate with males of a similar species, the olingo.

“It turns out she wasn’t fussy,” said Kristofer Helgen, curator of mammals at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC. “She wasn’t the right species.”

The zoologist made the identification after discovering some unfamiliar bones and animal skins in storage at a museum in Chicago.

“It stopped me in my tracks,” he said . “The skins were a rich red colour 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.”

At the museum, which houses the largest mammal collection in the world, more than 600,000 specimens are flat-packed in trays. Some were collected back in the 19th century; many were mislabelled or incorrectly identified.

But Dr Helgen was able to use new technology to compare DNA from the olinguito with similar animals and confirmed that it was a completely separate species. “It’s hard for me to explain how excited I am,” Dr Helgen said. “The olinguito is a carnivore – that 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 carnivore; the first to be found on the American continent for more than three decades.”

The researchers set out to track down the animal in the wild, and found it still inhabits several protected areas, ranging from central Colombia to western Ecuador. The researchers made another discovery: despite being a carnivore, it mostly eats fruit. It seems the olinguito remains as difficult to categorise as ever.


  • What are the differences between carnivores, herbivores and omnivores? Name an example of each.
  • What is a mammal? What other groups of creature can you think of?
  • Imagine that you have discovered a new species of animal. Answer the following questions about your animal, in full sentences:
    a) What is it called?
    b) What does it look like?
    c) Where does it live?
    d) What does it eat?

Related resources

Mystery mammals

  • By being responsible for studying their own mystery mammal, students will become motivated to discover connections between animals and their habitats, as well as getting to practice observation skills and detailed writing.

Who does not belong?

  • This activity from SMART Exchange reviews categorising animals according to mammals, reptiles and amphibians.

Grouping animals and variation

  • These PowerPoint presentations introduce students to grouping animals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, mammals and fish, and can be used alongside literacy and numeracy topics.

Sorting animals and plants

  • By using this worksheet from SigmaScience, children learn that animals can be grouped and sorted according to observable features.

Further news resources

First News front page

  • Help your pupils understand the features of the front page of a newspaper.

Write all about it

  • Get students creating their own news report with this step-by-step guide.

What is the News?

  • A sociological and media perspective on what makes an event 'newsworthy'.

On the box

  • Help pupils to write their own TV news broadcast with this handy PowerPoint.

Structuring stories

  • A scheme of work to help students structure news stories.

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