Last week newspapers announced that a new species of mammal had been discovered. The olinguito looks like a cat-like teddy bear. It had been hiding in plain sight at The National Zoo. Keepers had confused it with a known species, the olingo, which is a close relative. How could people have been unaware for so long? They had tried to breed the olinguito with olingos in other zoos, totally unaware that she couldn’t… she wasn’t their type!
Aside from this comedy of errors, it gets one thinking about what other new species might be out there, hidden in plain sight? Or others that are better hidden? Normally charismatic megafauna – a mouthful of a word that means cute, large creatures (as opposed to “creepy” insects or “slimy” worms) – particularly mammals, are thought to have all been discovered. But this olinguito proves that we don’t know as much about the natural world as we think we do. So what happens when a rain forest is cut or burned down to grow soy beans and palm oil? We may be losing more than we bargained for.
I can’t say that I lose sleep over these thoughts, but I do spend a good deal of my waking hours wondering about the environment. Thinking about how the actions of humankind affect the intricate web of all other species on the planet. Some may think that the olinguito isn’t all that important. It’s just a fruit eating relative of the raccoon, living out its days in South America. What does it matter if we never knew they existed and then they went extinct? Perhaps in the grand scheme of things it wouldn’t be a big deal? But perhaps the olinguitos pollinate fruit trees that humans depend on? Or they are eaten by another animal that would otherwise prey on farm animals? We can never foresee all the connections between one species and the next.
So I celebrate the discovery of the olinguito and hope that it raises awareness of the importance of scientific discovery. Just when you think there are no new significant species to discover… that the deep sea trenches and outer space are the only truly undiscovered countries… the olinguitos will prove you wrong! Way to go charismatic megafauna!