Sometimes, scientists find new species as they tromp through forest and jungles out in the field. But quite often, they also find new species closer to home—in the collections that are already in their museums. And that's exactly what happened with the olinguito. In 2013, this small member of the raccoon family became the first new carnivorous mammal species discovered in the Americas in 35 years. The animal, and its discovery, are profiled in the latest episode of the American Museum of Natural History's series Shelf Life.
AMNH's olinguito specimens were collected in the early 20th century, but never studied. It seems crazy, but it actually happens all the time. "When researchers go out in the field and make general collections—and this happened a lot back in the early 20th century‚ they would collect everything they could," Nancy Simmons, the curator in charge of the Department of Mammalogy, Division of Vertebrate Zoology, says. "When that came back to the museum, there might be a specialist here who worked on the rodents, somebody else might work on the carnivores, but maybe, for instance, the bats just got filed away. So only years later, when somebody who's interested and knowledgable about those particular species comes back and looks closely at them, they go, 'Wow, there's something new here that nobody noticed when it first came into the collections.'"
Though olinguito specimens exist in museums around the country (and were actually first found at Chicago's Field Museum), the holotype—which is a single specimen used to describe a species—resides at AMNH. "Because our work in the field and our work with DNA was based on the Ecuador samples, we really wanted to pick a type specimen from Ecuador, the best one. That turned out to be here, at this museum," says Kristofer Helgen, curator of mammals at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, who found the first olinguito specimens at the Field Museum in Chicago. "It's been here a long time, and we know it will always be here."