New species on display at the Field Museum — the olinguito
BY TINA SFONDELES Staff Reporter September 12, 2013 4:14PM
Visitors of The Field Museum, at 1400 S. Lake Shore Dr., have the opportunity to view a new species, the Olinguito, until Oct. 28. Described as a cross between a teddy bear and a cat, a visiting scientist discovered the specimen while researching the museum’s collection in 2003. | Ashlee Rezin/for Sun-Times Media
Updated: October 15, 2013 7:09AM
The fur, skin and skull of teddy bear-like raccoons were tucked neatly in a Field Museum drawer, behind the scenes since 1951.
The species was classified as an olingo — a nocturnal raccoon family species found in the rainforests of Central and South America from Nicaragua to Peru.
But when mammalogist Kristofer Helgen of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History opened up a drawer of the skins in 2003, he noticed something different.
Some looked a bit redder, with longer hair, and smaller skulls and teeth. It turned out to be a new species — the olinguito, announced worldwide on Aug. 15.
On display at the Field Museum until Oct. 28, Chicago visitors can see the newest species in the museum’s lobby, tucked in a corner behind “Sue.” The specimen on display — next to an olingo’s skin and skull — is among the ones Helgen used to make his discovery.
From the Field Museum, Helgen went to museums across the world, and found more evidence of the olinguito. He then got DNA evidence, teamed up with biologists and found them in action in Ecuador.
“He went down to the forest and actually was walking out at night, turned on a flashlight and there was an olinguito, staring at him from the trees,” said Bill Stanley, mammalogist and director of collections.
The same new species had been hiding in plain sight in the drawers of some of the world’s most renowned natural museums.
“I think probably one of the most significant aspects of this story is that it was hidden in a drawer upstairs in our collection,” Stanley said. “When people think of the Field Museum, they think storage. That these collections are in dusty bins, sitting in storage in dark cabinets and nothing could be further from the truth.”
He said the museum non-displayed material is “dynamic,” with visiting scientists from across the world making discoveries in a giant library of collections.
“Less than 1 percent of what is in this building is on display. The rest is upstairs, downstairs, underground and those are what lead bright scientists to make discoveries,” Stanley said.
The discovery of a new carnivore is extremely rare — one hasn’t been discovered in the Americas in 35 years. The new species is part of the raccoon family, basically a smaller version of the olingo.
“Yes, there are a lot more bacteria to find. There’s a lot more moss species to describe. No one is every surprised when we find a new mouse,” Stanley said. “But when you have things like the carnivore, then you think — wow, this is way sexier.”
And it doesn’t hurt that the new species is being described as a small, furry teddy bear meets cat.
“I think it’s cute,” Stanley said. “I think that has a lot to do with why people are interested. That’s why the panda works well with people. People follow cute.”