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Meet the olinguito, the shy ‘bear-cat’ that’s the first new carnivore to be discovered in the West for 35 years

Hidden away in the cloud forests of Colombia and described as half cat, half teddy bear, the olinguito is the first new carnivore to be discovered in the Western Hemisphere in 35 years.

The cute creature has been wrongly identified for 100 years, despite having been spotted in the wild, tucked into museum collections and even exhibited in zoos.

But now scientists at the Smithsonian Institute have confirmed the loveable carnivorous mammal is a new species and have said it is ‘an incredibly rare discovery in the 21st Century’.

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the olinguito is the first new carnivore to be discovered in the Western Hemisphere in 35 years

Hidden away in the cloud forests of Colombia and described as half cat, half teddy bear, the olinguito is the first new carnivore to be discovered in the Western Hemisphere in 35 years

Researchers said that despite the animal’s cat feline and bear-like appearance, the olinguito is actually a member of the Procyonidae family, along with raccoons, coatis, kinkajous and olingos.

Weighing 2lb and with woolly orange brown fur, it lives in the cloud forests of Colombia and Ecuador but for more than a century it was mistaken for its larger close cousin, the olingo.

An examination of the skull, teeth and skin of museum specimens has now confirmed that it is a different species – the first New World carnivore to be identified in 35 years.

In a report on the discovery, U.S. scientists from the Smithsonion Institute in Washington DC described the creature’s appearance as ‘a cross between a house cat and a teddy bear’.

Compared with the olingo, its teeth and skull are smaller and shaped differently and its orange-brown fur is longer and denser.

‘The discovery of the olinguito shows us that the world is not yet completely explored, its most basic secrets not yet revealed,’ said Dr Kristofer Helgen, curator of mammals at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

The olinguito is a shy ‘bear-cat’ that lives in south America

Researchers say the olinguito looks like a cross between a house cat and a teddy bear

Researchers say the olinguito looks like a cross between a house cat and a teddy bear but the furry animals is actually a member of the Procyonidae family, along with raccoons, coatis, kinkajous and olingos

‘If new carnivores can still be found, what other surprises await us? So many of the world’s species are not yet known to science.

‘Documenting them is the first step towards understanding the full richness and diversity of life on Earth.’

The animal’s scientific name is Bassaricyon neblina.

Bassaricyon is a genus, or family, of tree-living carnivore that includes several different species, while nebina means ‘fog’ in Spanish.

After identifying museum specimens, the researchers travelled to the northern Andes to see if any olinguitos remained in the wild.

Records showed that the creature lived high in the mountains, at elevations of 5,000 to 9,000 feet above sea level and grainy footage from a camcorder video provided a lucky early lead.

Eventually, the team discovered olinguitos living in an Ecuadorian forest and spent a number of days observing the creatures.

They learned that the olinguito is mostly active at night, eats fruit as well as meat, rarely leaves the trees, and has one offspring at a time.

Weighing two pounds and with wooly orange brown fur, the olinguito lives in the cloud forests of Colombia and Ecuador, as its scientific name 'neblina,' which is Spanish for fog, suggests

Weighing two pounds and with wooly orange brown fur, the olinguito lives in the cloud forests of Colombia and Ecuador, as its scientific name ‘neblina,’ which is Spanish for fog, suggests. The creature is mostly active at night and eats mainly fruit despite being a carnivore but it rarely comes out of the trees

The animal’s habitat is under heavy pressure from human development, said the scientists writing in the journal ZooKeys.

An estimated 42 per cent of olinguito habitat has already been urbanised or converted to agriculture.

At least one olinguito from Colombia was exhibited in several US zoos during the 1960s and 1970s, the researchers said.

There were several occasions in the past century when the species came close to being unmasked.

In 1920, a New York zoologist suggested that a museum specimen was unusual enough to be a new species, but never followed the suspicion up.

Dr Helgen said: ‘The cloud forests of the Andes are a world unto themselves, filled with many species found nowhere else, many of them threatened or endangered.

‘We hope that the olinguito can serve as an ambassador species for the cloud forests of Ecuador and Colombia, to bring the world’s attention to these critical habitats.

‘This is a beautiful animal, but we know so little about it. How many countries does it live in?

‘What else can we learn about its behaviour [and] what do we need to do to ensure its conservation?’

For more than a century the oliguino was mistaken for its larger close cousin, the olingo

For more than a century the oliguino was mistaken for its larger close cousin, the olingo (pictured). An examination of the skull, teeth and skin of museum specimens has now confirmed that it is a different species

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