I'll be taking questions here from 12 – 2 today. Ask Me Anything!

I'm Kris Helgen, research scientist and head of mammals at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, the largest museum collection of mammals in the world. We just announced a new species of mammal/carnivore, olinguito! Read more here: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/For-the-First-Time-in-35-Years-A-New-Carnivorous-Mammal-Species-is-Discovered-in-the-Western-Hemisphere--219762981.html#New-Mammal-Olinguito-1.png

About my background, I have a Bachelor’s degree in Biology from Harvard and a Ph.D. from the University of Adelaide in Australia, studying the evolution of mammals on the island of New Guinea. My work focuses especially on biological expeditions to the tropics and historical research in museum collections to document mammalian biodiversity and to study environmental change. I've worked as a zoologist in 50 countries and discovered 100 species of living mammals. I'm originally from Minnesota and now live in Virginia with my wife Lauren Helgen, also a zoologist.

Proof: https://twitter.com/smithsonian/status/368082825024905216

OK, thanks everyone for great questions! Have to get back to work here at the Smithsonian! Signing off: Olinguito!

Comments: 1160 • Responses: 22  • Date: 

Peepth578 karma

Is it a friendly creature? How did it get its name?

KrisHelgen958 karma

Olinguitos are not at all fierce animals, but they are shy! But we are only just starting to learn about the behavior of olinguitos!

The name Olinguito comes from combing olingo + ito. Olingo to designate that it is closely related to olingos, and -ito to mean little. -ito can also be added as a term of affection! So "Olinguito" more or less means "little, adorable olingo"!

KrisHelgen676 karma

suffix -ito is Spanish

Theemuts406 karma

Was the olinguito also unknown to locals?

KrisHelgen580 karma

As far as we have been able to find out, it is also unknown to locals. Judging from local Andean language terms and from talking to people, it seems people rarely distinguish between kinkajous and olingos, let alone olinguitos. Part of the confusion is that in some areas of middle elevation forests in the Andes, you can have kinkajous, olingos, and olinguitos all living in the same general area, and they are all pretty hard to tell apart when you see them at night up in the trees. If we had found a local language name that definitively applied to the olinguito (and not also to olingos or kinkajous), we would have loved to have used that name as the common or scientific name of this animal that we have called the Olinguito.

testmypatience226 karma

Neat little critter. I wonder how they taste in a burger.

drednaught169 karma

A species is often defined as a group of organisms capable of interbreeding and producing fertile offspring. Scientists now believe an olinguito was exhibited in several zoos in the US between 1967 and 1976. Its keepers mistook it for an olinga - a close relative - and could not understand why it would not breed. It was sent to a number of different zoos but died without being properly identified.

testmypatience66 karma

So if these types of creatures KrisHelgen is talking about can interbreed, can the still be considered different species?

KrisHelgen280 karma

Three sources of evidence show us that Olinguitos and olingos do not interbreed: 1.they can live in the same geographic region in the Andes without interbreeding; 2. they are very different genetically and separated by milions of years of independent evolution; 3. a female Olinguito that once lived in zoos (mistakenly thought to be an olingo, in various US zoos 1967-1976) would not breed with olingos, despite many attempts to get her to breed.

thehooplehead360 karma

Were there any names that were close to being chosen instead of olinguito? Maybe the weasel bear?

KrisHelgen495 karma

Lots of possible names-- we were thinking about names like "Mountain Olingo" or "Andean Olingo", but I wanted to choose a good one-word name, and I think Olinguito suits the animal really well!

KrisHelgen335 karma

Hi, all... Kris Helgen here. Google Hangout finished late -- I'm reading questions now. Thanks!

Spacely21206 karma

How many more mammals do you think are out there too find still?

Not including future evolutions of today's animals.

KrisHelgen456 karma

There is no doubt that there are many hundreds of unknown living mammal species out there that still have not been "discovered" or given scientific names.

KrisHelgen407 karma

Most people think we must be done discovering mammals, but there is a long way to go. The Olinguito is a good example of how easy it can be, even for zoologists, to overlook a distinctive animal!

KrisHelgen387 karma

Most of the mammals that remain undescribed are probably quite small, especially bats, mice, and shrews, but some are bigger than you might expect!

KrisHelgen399 karma

Some of the mammals I have named or "discovered" in the past include some of the largest bats in the world, and some of the largest rats. But only one is in the order Carnivora-- the olinguito.

pand4duck122 karma

Do you have a favorite animal?

If you could be any animal for one day, what would you be?

Thanks for the AMA!

KrisHelgen255 karma

My favorite animal is one of the strangest mammals on earth-- the largest egg-laying mammal, the Long-beaked echidna, found in New Guinea, and in the recent past, in Australia:


KrisHelgen207 karma

If I could be any animal for a day, maybe an insect-eating bat-- what would it be like to navigate the world using echolocation?

One of my favorite bats is the Badger Bat (or Pied Bat), Niumbaha superba-- check it out: http://www.sci-news.com/biology/article00992.html

theVice51 karma

I have never seen that before, but it's my favorite microbat now.

KrisHelgen48 karma

Here's another recent ZooKeys paper about this animal, another museum and field detective story similar in some ways to the Olinguito's tale: http://www.pensoft.net/journals/zookeys/article/3774/twentieth-century-occurrence-of-the-long-beaked-echidna-zaglossus-bruijnii-in-the-kimberley-region-of-australia

Razuto2281 karma

Is there any video footage of these mammals? i tried looking for some, but couldn't find any. Thanks!

KrisHelgen174 karma

Yes, I have seen one video of the Olinguito that was just posted to youtube-- I only found out about it yesterday after we reported the discovery:


Fandorin63 karma

Is there a way to tell whether this particular species has been around for a long time or has recently branched off another species? Have you ever encountered something new that was really new, and not just undiscovered?

KrisHelgen144 karma

"New species" is a label that scientists use to refer to animals that have recently been distinguished by biologists and given a scientific name. Hence, the Olinguito is a new species, since it was first given its scientific name (Bassaricyon neblina) in 2013 (yesterday), as compare to, say, the North American raccoon, which was first given its scientific name (Procyon lotor), in 1758.

The term "new species" generally does NOT mean that the species is an immediate offshoot that has just now evolved. Species of mammals that are called "new species" of mammals have usually existed for hundreds of thousands to millions of years as independent lines of evolution, but have only just been described by taxonomists. We have estimated (from comparisons of DNA) that the Olinguito has been on a separate evolutionary branch from its closest relatives, the olingos, for 3-4 million years.

Jephae41 karma

On the news last night, they mentioned that one of these creatures lived in a zoo in America for years. How is it possible that an unknown mammal was living in a zoo, unidentified, for so long? Is it a very slight difference between the olinguito and an olingo? Just from the photos I've seen, their physical appearance looks different enough that I would expect someone to start asking questions.

Thanks for the AMA! I was so excited to see you here this morning!

KrisHelgen81 karma

An example like this shows you how little we truly know about the natural world, and how easy it is to overlook even something as distinctive as the Olinguito for so long. Once we know their differential features and how to tell them apart, it's often easy in hindsight to recognize an animal species when we see it--but not before someone does the work to find out exactly what all those distinguishing features really are. That's what happened with the Olinguito-- before my team's efforts, no one had looked closely enough to see all the ways that the Olinguito was different from olingos. These issues of "mistaken identity" are surprisingly common in biology. Studying specimens stored in museum collections (not on display, but behind the scenes in scientific collections) has traditionally been the way that scientists have learned how to tell different animals apart-- once that work is done, and you know a species' true distinguishing features, you can then often use photos or observations to make an ID (first museum work, then a field guide). Today one of the most robust ways to learn how to tell species apart is to make anatomical comparisons of museum specimens PLUS look at differences in DNA.

dajokr41 karma

Dr. Helgen, thanks so much for the great Google Hangout and immediately coming over here. Question: Why haven't you used your personal Twitter account @khelgen? You have tons of new fans and mammalogy enthusiasts.

KrisHelgen81 karma

Hey, thanks for coming to the Google Hangout. So-- as you can see--I've never tweeted, and you're right, this might be a good time to get started! I like to find as many ways as possible to get the word out about science and about our discoveries, so it's probably time to get @khelgen started in the twitterverse!

Dancemanleo38 karma

What first lead you on the trail to find this creature. Did you see some unfamiliar dung or something like that, or were you just doing other studies in the area.

printpixels54 karma

They found hides and skulls in museums that didn't look to be olingos, so they investigated.

KrisHelgen106 karma

That's exactly right, printpixels. I found several museum specimens of Olinguitos, and I knew they were different from olingos. All of these specimens had come from Andean cloud forests in the Northern Andes (Ecuador and Colombia) decades ago. The next step was to get down to the same habitats in the Northern Andes and see if we could find populations in the wild, and that is what we did. BTW: here's the link to the original scientific paper we published yesterday (you can download the pdf for free): http://www.pensoft.net/journals/zookeys/article/5827/taxonomic-revision-of-the-olingos-bassaricyon-with-description-of-a-new-species-the-olinguito

caphits25 karma

When did you think that this might actually be something new? How long did it take to verify the discovery?

KrisHelgen66 karma

It took us ten years. It took so long in part because I work on a large number of projects like this (20 or so) at a time, and because I wanted to be very thorough! Our paper documenting the Olinguito involved comparisons of specimens in dozens of museums around the world, fieldwork in Ecuador, laboratory work on DNA (including using "ancient DNA" techniques to obtain DNA out of old museum skulls), geographic range modeling, and much else, and involved a team of 8 scientists. All of that work started in 2003, when I first found Olinguito skins and skulls in a museum cabinet in the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. Everyone else had missed their distinguishing features.

HWG_in_charge20 karma

Why don't we consider the person who put the furs that you first found in the museum the "discoverer"?

KrisHelgen89 karma

Yes, that is one way to look at it! But generally, in science, a "discovery" is not credited to the first person to see or come across something (e.g. a species or a phenomenon), but to someone who explains its context, significance, how it all works. Our team of scientists was the first to realize and demonstrate that the Olinguito was a very different species than any other known mammal and that it did not yet have a scientific name.

Silva2Gold0 karma

PLEASE tell me you used to watch The Wild Thornberries

KrisHelgen2 karma

I've never seen it, but I googled it and it sounds cool!