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I've been a Canberran since moving here from Adelaide on the first day of 1980. I now live in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise Maher, ABC 666 radio and on-line journalist. Among my early memories is following Sleepy Lizards (Shinglebacks) around the paddocks north of Adelaide, guarded by the faithful bull terrier. I have always been passionate about the natural world, trying to understand how it works, how the nature of Australia came to be, and sharing those understandings. My especial passions are birds, orchids and mammals. For much of my life I have been a full-time naturalist, running bush tours, writing books etc, doing consultancies, presenting a regular radio slot on local ABC, chairing a government environment advisory committee and running adult education classes. Recently I have eased back somewhat, but am still writing, teaching, doing some radio work and running overseas tours - as part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past decade. I was awarded the Australian Plants Society Award in 2001 and the Australian Natural History Medallion in 2006, both for services to education and conservation. In January 2018 I was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia for 'service to conservation and the environment'.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Enter Olinguito

One of my very first postings in this blog asked the question "When is a REALLY lousy photo OK?". My suggested answer to the question then was "when it's the only way to properly tell a story that I think is worth telling". Today, as you may have divined, that situation raises its head again.

The omnivorous family Procyonidae of the Americas (in the Order Carnivora) includes some familiar species, including raccoons and coatis.
South American Coatis Nasua nasua, Manu National Park, Peru.
A widespread and relatively familiar procyonid.
Among the less familiar species is the Olingo Bassaricyon spp. - I use that term because at least until very recently there was some considerable confusion and dispute as to just what constituted an Olingo. Some authorities recognised just one, while others separated out the central American olingos from those of north-western South America. 
Northern Olingo Bassacaryon gabbi, Costa Rica.
Photo courtesy Wikipedia.
Recently the olingo specialists, generally working around Kristofer Helgen at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, did a thorough survey of museum specimens and studied their DNA. It was not particularly startling when they determined that the lowland forms east and west of the Andes apparently represent separate species; others had already suggested that. What was a surprise was their growing realisation that a quite different species of olingo inhabited the cloud forests of the northern Andes, from Colombia to Ecuador and at elevations of 1500 to 2700 metres above sea level. 

Cloud forest at its most typical, Bellavista Lodge, north-western Ecuador.

Museum specimens had been lumped with lowland olingos (though one New York zoologist came close to the truth in the 1920s, but didn't ever publish). It transpired that one had even been exhibited in US zoos in the 1960s and 70s, where it understandably declined to breed with 'other' olingos. Helgen's group realised that cloud forest olingo specimens were consistently smaller, redder and heavier-furred than lowland ones with different dentition; they were named 'Olinguito' (little olingo). A targeted expedition to the historical range actually did find the animal in the wild; in August 2013 a publication officially named it Bassaricyon neblina (ie 'misty'), the first new species of carnivore to be named from the Americas in 35 years.

I'd followed the story with some excitement, but never dreamed that I might have the opportunity to actually meet the Olinguito when I went back to Ecuador last month. However it turned out that Bellavista Lodge (where the above photo of prime Olinguito habitat was taken) had been hosting visits from its local Olinguitos for some time, first when they began sharing in the hummingbirds' nectar from the feeders and later when they were offered bananas at an elevated feeding platform.

It was one of the most amazing wildlife offers I'd ever received when our group was invited to come and observe a pair of this very special animal coming down to this feeder at night. This brings me back to my opening comments on lousy photos - obviously enough no flash is permitted and my basic little camera was struggling. Nonetheless I think this is one of those occasions when sharing poor photos is justified - so far not many people have had the opportunity to see the Olinguito in the wild and I think that in that circumstance almost any pic is better than none. (And in any case you can easily find better ones on the web!)
Above and below; wild Olinguito coming to sample some banana at Bellavista Lodge, north-western Ecuador.

Probably in due course other cloud forest lodges will discover they live with Olinguitos too but meantime Bellavista might be one of your few realistic chances of seeing one! And of course the question, yet again, is 'what else is out there?'...



Susan said...

Ooooooh how exciting!! I remember one of the zoologists involved in 'discovering' the new species saying that when you look at them now you can't believe no one noticed the difference before.

Flabmeister said...

I suggest you refer to my blog (most any post) before you start calling photos like that 'lousy'!

Well done!