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New Carnivore: The Olinguito

August 15, 2013

From Danny and the Dinosaur to Night at the Museum, storytellers have tried to convey the excitement of knowledge stored away in dusty museums–and how it may come to life. Here is a case in real life, an animal never known to science but stored away amongst thousands of pelts and bones in the drawers of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

A related type of animal, the olingo, is known in the cloud forests of the Andes, at altitudes surprisingly high to support carnivores. But the red pelts of the smaller raccoon-like olinguito were collected early in the twentieth century, before even the discovery of DNA. They were cleaned, preserved and catalogued in  numbers too large for museum researchers to study them all. For decades, it was considered hopeless to learn much about preserved animal remains beyond their bone measurements.

But the advent of DNA sampling by PCR changed everything. Now an enterprising researcher, like Kristofer Helgen at the Smithsonian, can notice something odd like the striking red coat and unique anatomy of these specimens–then propose a new species, and test the hypothesis. And plan new expeditions to find this creature alive.

For mammals, species are defined based on DNA divergence and other chromosome anomalies that prevents the likelihood of interbreeding. Of course, there are infrequent cases of species hybridization; and there are sudden anomalies, such as the 44 chromosome man, who could lead through interbreeding to a new species. But overall, the DNA of an organism tells us much about its breeding history and the general shape of its population. And the museums have come alive with new stories.

  1. August 15, 2013 4:22 pm

    I have in some of my stories and narratives from the Andes an animal for which we couldn’t find a translation so we called it ‘squirrel-like’. The texts were recording from very elderly people from 30 to 50 years ago (they were primarily born in the 19th century). I’m wondering if it might be this one. They were not domesticated & occur primarily with people from the high pampa.

  2. August 16, 2013 4:47 pm

    If any Kenyon students show interest in museum curation or research, point them to The Brain Scoop. It’s a project run on Youtube and Tumblr that features the Chicago Field Museum (previously the Montana Zoological Museum). The show’s host, Emily Graslie, is super smart and enthusiastic about this kind of stuff.

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