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Meet the olinguito: scientists discover adorable new animal species

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Scientists have so far discovered, named, and catalogued 1.3 million of the species that reside on planet Earth. And today, a team led by the Smithsonian Institute announced the latest edition to that growing list — and the first species in the order Carnivora to be discovered in the Western Hemisphere since the 1980's. Introducing: a furry, 2-pound creature named the olinguito.

A furry, 2-pound creature named the olinguito

Formally known as Bassaricyon neblina, the olinguito has actually been lurking under the noses of museum curators, zookeepers, and scientists for decades. That's because the olinguito is a member of the olingo genus of animals, a population that's long been displayed in museums, zoos, and even tracked in the wild. But when scientists set out to comprehensively study the various species of olingos, they made a surprising discovery: some of the museum specimens they were examining exhibited traits that differed starkly from other olingos, including a smaller skull and longer fur.

"This is a beautiful animal, but we know so little about it."

From there, the team took to the Andean forests in Ecuador, in an effort to see if this newly-catalogued species still thrived in the wild. Indeed, they were able to find groups of olinguitos living high in the Andes, and observed that the creatures thrive at night, munch primarily on fruit, and tend to reside in trees for long stretches of time. Still, they acknowledge, plenty of questions about the olinguito remain. "This is a beautiful animal, but we know so little about it," said Kristofer Helgen, the leader of the research team, in a statement. "How many countries does it live in? What else can we learn about its behavior? What do we need to do to ensure its conservation?"

That last question, unfortunately, might very well be the most salient. Helgen and his colleagues note that an estimated 42 percent of the olinguito habitat in the Andes has already been razed for agriculture or overtaken by urban development.