Olingos (Bassaricyon): Balsa-Pollinating, Fig-Propagating Exotic Pet of Central and South America

by DerdriuMarriner

A pair of cinnamon eyes does not belong to a starved vampire. The look is the monopoly of the olingo. It keeps exotic pet and wildlife lovers from confusing olingos with kinkajous.

Cat-sized, ferret-faced, fox-colored, procyonid-tailed, squirrel-ankled members of the raccoon family of mammals, Procyonidae, are among the favorite pets and the must-see wildlife of the Americas.

Tourists of the American Southwest find ready access to these petite variations on raccoon themes in ring-tailed cats (Bassariscus astutus), Arizona’s state mammal since 1986. Travelers to Latin America have opportunities to observe the ringtail's closest relative, the cacomistle (Bassariscus sumichrasti) of southern Mexico southward through western Panama.

Visitors of Central through South America may continue their acquaintance with other like-shaped, like-sized, albeit less closely related, ringtail relatives as
• Brown-nosed (Nasua nasua), mountain (Nasuella meridensis, N. olivacea), and white-nosed (Nasua narica) coatis;
• Kinkajous (Potos flavus);
• Olingos (Bassaricyon spp).

kinkajou (Potos flavus)

Often confused with olingos despite such differences as tail positions: Olingos hold their tails horizontally whereas kinkajous hold their tails vertically.
ZooParc de Bauval, Saint-Aignan, Loir-et-Cher, Central France
ZooParc de Bauval, Saint-Aignan, Loir-et-Cher, Central France


Kinkajous appear to be the olingo’s closest relatives. Kinkajous and olingos are reminiscent of one another in body features and environmental habits. The two can be described as nocturnal arborealists of Central and South America’s montane forests. They even cooperate with hunts, mealtimes, and socializations. Reticent kinkajous and retiring olingos indeed forage together for ground-dwelling amphibians and arthropods. They even like feeding at the same fruit trees, particularly if the harvest is tomato-sized wild figs (Ficus spp). They each love to apply mouthfuls of 40 razor-sharp teeth to communicating loudly and eating noisily. But in so doing, they reveal individual differences:

  • Kinkajous have extrudable tongues and prehensile tails; 
  • Olingos have longer, tapering muzzles and musky body odor.


Confident trapeze artistry of brown-nosed coati (Nasua nasua):

Despite camaraderie with kinkajous, olingos are more closely related to coatis.
Marwell Wildlife, Owslebury, Hampshire County, south England
Marwell Wildlife, Owslebury, Hampshire County, south England


Olingos actually are far less closely related to kinkajous than they are to coatis. Scientists attribute the sharing of some habitual behaviors and physical features to parallel evolution, not to close relationships. They describe kinkajous and olingos as evidencing in appearance and behavior the influences -- along separate developmental paths -- of:

  • Shared genetic ancestry;
  • Similar environmental challenges.  

Common ancestry goes back to the oldest known procyonid, the bassarisks (Bassaricyon), whose existence predates their oldest-known evidence, a 20,000,000+-year-old fossil. In pursuit of omnivorous over carnivorous diets, bassarisks may have diverged from the Canidae family of coyotes, dogs, foxes, jackals, and wolves. They may have diversified about 22,600,000 years ago into the subfamilies of:

  • Potosinae (kinkajous);
  • Procyoninae (non-kinkajou bassarisks).


Non-kinkajou procyonids are thought to have diverged about 17,700,000 years ago into the two disparate tribes of:

  • Raccoons and ringtails;
  • Coatis and olingos.

Scientists consider non-kinkajou procyonids as diversifying about 10,200,000 years ago into the four distinct subtribes of:

  • Cacomistles and ringtails;
  • Coatis;
  • Olingos;
  • Raccoons.

They hypothesize Central America as the homeland of kinkajou and non-kinkajou procyonids. They identify as critical to the procyonids’ southward dispersals -- about 7,300,000 years ago -- the Central American Seaway’s closing by the volcanically-formed Isthmus of Panama. The Seaway is thought to have formed about 200,000,000 years ago with the break-up of the supercontinent Pangaea (from which the African, American, Antarctic, Australian, and Eurasian continents and the Indian subcontinent are formed).


Great American Biotic Interchange

olive green = South American (neotropic) species whose ancestors migrated to North America; blue = North American (nearctic) species whose ancestors migrated to South America.
Great American Biotic Interchange was caused by the tectonic creation of the Isthmus of Panama in the late Pliocene.
Great American Biotic Interchange was caused by the tectonic creation of the Isthmus of Panama in the late Pliocene.


Scientists attribute the formation of the Isthmus of Panama to the activity of underwater volcanoes in the ancient Central American Seaway. Accumulations of lava and sediment explain the creation of the Panamanian land bridge between Nearctic and Neotropic ecozones in the Western Hemisphere. By fostering one of the world’s greatest “hotspots” of biodiversity, Central America still honors the terrestrial connections thereby established anciently between north and south. It is the focal point from which freshwater fauna and flora realize naturalizations northward into temperate climates and southward into subtropical and tropical climes. It is the homeland in which the ancestors of cacomistles stayed put and from which the ancestors of coatis, kinkajous and olingos sent intrepid explorers southward.


Four species of Bassaricyon:

(top to bottom) Bassaricyon neblina ruber subsp. n., Western Andes' western slopes, Colombia), Bassaricyon medius (Bassaricyon medius orinomus, eastern Panama), Bassaricyon alleni (Peru), and Bassaricyon gabbii (Costa Rica).
Relative tail length of Bassaricyon gabbii shown longer than average.
Relative tail length of Bassaricyon gabbii shown longer than average.


The resulting Great American Biotic Interchange of animals and plants accounts for the olingo genus diversifying into four species:

  • Central American (Bassaricyon gabbii);
  • Eastern lowland (Bassaricyon alleni);
  • Mountain (Bassaricyon neblina);
  • Western lowland (Bassaricyon medius).

As Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History Mammals Department Curator, Dr. Kristofer Helgen considers olinguitos venturing -- about 3,500,000 years ago -- toward Colombia’s and Ecuador’s foggy, forested Western Andes Mountains. He describes Central American olingos as stay-at-homes -- about 1,800,000 years ago -- in highland and lowland Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panama. He identifies lowland olingos as diversifying about 1,300,000 years ago into migrants:

  • East of the Andes into Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru and Venezuela;
  • West of the Andes into Colombia, Ecuador and Panama.


Bioclimatic distribution models and localities for Bassaricyon species

Olingos lives at altitudes at sea level up to 6000 feet (2000 meters), but especially at 3300 feet (1000 meters) upward.
Figure 11; Models from MAXENT with all vouchered occurrence records and variables (19 bioclimatic 1 potential habitat)
Figure 11; Models from MAXENT with all vouchered occurrence records and variables (19 bioclimatic 1 potential habitat)


Scientists generally consider current olingo populations healthy in size but mysterious in existence. Despite ancient lineages, olingos constitute recent scientific discoveries. Only 137 years divide the official descriptions of the olingo genus Bassaricyon by zoologist Joel Asaph Allen (July 19, 1838 – August 29, 1921) in 1876 and of the olinguito species, B. neblina, by Dr. Helgen in 2013. The reasons for the general unfamiliarity to non-locals and scientists lie in:

  • Collectors confusing quieter, shyer olingos for noisier, more sociable kinkajous;
  • Olingos favoring arboreal, nocturnal, solitary lifestyles along the epiphyte-, fruit- and insect-laden branches and in the hidden hollows of large trees in subtropical and tropical rainforests away from the disturbed environments of agro-industrial plantations and secondary forests.


Olingos in fact are eligible for the designation “survivalists.” They flourish in one of the world’s most biologically diverse and environmentally threatened biomes. Scientists usually identify olingos as non-threatened wildlife of humid, lofty, lush biotopes despite neotropical habitats being decreased -- as much as 42% -- by the late 20th- and early 21st-century activities of:

  • Agro-industrialists;
  • Loggers;
  • Poachers;
  • Vacationers.

Some of the olingo’s researchers mull the appropriateness of moving the keystone mammal into the category of “near-threatened” in the face of:

  • Monoculture afforestation;
  • Mountain deforestation.

But the present remains tentatively safe for olingos since they are not as “marketable” as kinkajous. For example, poachers tend to avoid musk-smelling olingo flesh and fur for musk-free kinkajou meat and pelts.


olingo's cinnamon eyes: closeup of western lowland olingo (Bassaricyon medius)

Olingo's eyes shine as orange at night.
Las Pampas, adjacent to Otonga Reserve, northwestern  Pichincha province, northwestern Ecuador
Las Pampas, adjacent to Otonga Reserve, northwestern Pichincha province, northwestern Ecuador


Area villagers and small-scale farmers nevertheless appreciate young olingos as trainable wild pets. The olingo female delivers one blind, deaf, immobile, near-naked newborn about 73-74 days after mating during the year’s dry season. The newborn, who hovers around a birth weight of 1.94 ounces (55 grams), depends upon the mother. The father generally favors a solitary existence within a 57-acre (23-hectare) home range. But within one month, quick-learning baby olingos manage to open their eyes. Two months after birth, the olingo baby masticates solid food. By the age of 21-24 months, the juvenile olingo reaches sexual maturity. It tends to be in the 18-20 months preceding sexual maturity that olingos cooperate with a loose domestication by villagers.


The adult olingo’s features are charming combinations of:

  • Bear-like gaits on paws with curved claws, flattened toes, and hairy soles;
  • Cat-like sizes, with hind legs longer than forelimbs;
  • Fox-like snouts, with rounded ears and eyes above greyish muzzles;
  • Raccoon-like tails, with 11-13 faintly darkened, regularly spaced bands;
  • Squirrel-like movements, with reversible ankles for descending slopes and trunks head-first.

The thick fur’s mature colors articulate:

  • Browns and grays for tails and upper parts;
  • Creams and yellows on the underparts;
  • Yellows on the sides of the head and throat.

Mature head-and-body lengths average 12-19 inches (30-47 centimeters). Mature tail lengths can range from 14-21 inches (35-53 centimeters). Mature weights hover between 2.4 and 3.5 pounds (1.1 and 1.58 kilograms).


Tayras (Eira barbara), omnivores in weasel family (Mustelidae), prey upon olingos.

Boas, jaguarundis, and ocelots join tayras as olingo's predators.
tayra eating fruit
tayra eating fruit


Juvenile olingos acquiesce to affectionate, loyal interactions with humankind. They are capable of modifying nocturnal lifestyles when human friends build stilt and tree houses and leave diurnally fresh fruits and vegetables. They assume canine- and feline-like behaviors targeting small lizards and mammals that dismay foster families. But sexual maturity complicates relationships since adult males prioritize pursuing females in heat during each year’s dry season. Additional interventions against domestication include:

  • Energetic propensities toward nightly jumps, leaps and runs;
  • Four sets of non-retractable claws in need of digging, grasping and tearing to control overgrowth;
  • Four sets of teeth -- left and right lower- and upper-jawed -- each expressing carnassial dental formulas of three incisors, one canine, four premolars, and two molars.


Northern olingo, as known as bushy-tailed olingo: skull, jaw, and teeth

J.A. Allen, "Description," Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia (1876), Plate 1, opp. p. 440
J.A. Allen, "Description," Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia (1876), Plate 1, opp. p. 440

Conclusion: Sustainable futures for olingos through freedom and understanding


Olingo species individualize:

  • Color and length of pelage and snouts;
  • Length of ears and tails;
  • Shape of postdental palatal shelf;
  • Size of auditory bullae and meati, cheekteeth, and skulls.

Each inspires recollecting and reinterpreting data against previous misidentification and misinformation. The most mysterious is the olinguito while the least -- but not by much -- is Mesoamerica’s Bassaricyon gabbii. Habitat protection, nature preserves, scientific technology, and zoological parks promise all olingos sustainable futures. The first steps down 1,000-mile (1,609.34-kilometer) journeys to sustainability’s wisdom respect deep truths deducible from the genius of Leonardo daVinci (April 15, 1452 - May 2, 1519) and of Albert Einstein (March 14, 1879 - April 18, 1955):

  • Let nature be free;
  • Let nature be understood. 


northern olingo (Bassaricyon gabbii)

Local names for olingo in Central and South America include cuataquil, cuchumbi, and pericote.
Monteverde Hummingbird Gallery, northwestern Costa Rica
Monteverde Hummingbird Gallery, northwestern Costa Rica



My special thanks to talented artists and photographers/concerned organizations who make their fine images available on the internet.



Olingo's favorite floral nectar: balsa (Ochroma pyramidale)

Balsa, Ochroma pyramidale
Balsa, Ochroma pyramidale

Sources Consulted


Allen J.A. (1877). "Additional note on Bassaricyon gabbii." Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia 29:267-268. Retrieved on January 13, 2014. 

Allen J.A. (1876). "Description of a new generic type (Bassaricyon) of Procyonida, from Costa Rica." Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia 28:20-23. Retrieved on January 13, 2014.

  • Available via Internet Archive at: http://www.archive.org/stream/proceedingsofaca28acad#page/n3/mode/2up

"Bassaricyon alleni -- Allen's Olingo." InfoNatura: Animals and Ecosystems of Latin America [web application]. 2007. Version 5.0. Arlington, VA: NatureServe. Retrieved on January 13, 2014.

  • Available at: http://www.natureserve.org/infonatura/servlet/InfoNatura?searchName=Bassaricyon+alleni

"Bassaricyon gabbii -- Bushy-tailed Olingo." Encyclopedia of Life. Retrieved on January 13, 2014.

  • Available via Encyclopedia of Life at: http://eol.org/pages/328060/details

"Bassaricyon gabbii -- Olingo." InfoNatura: Animals and Ecosystems of Latin America [web application]. 2007. Version 5.0. Arlington, VA: NatureServe. Retrieved on January 13, 2014.

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  • Available at: http://www.academia.edu/388421/Range_extension_and_sociality_of_Bushy-tailed_Olingo_Bassaricyon_gabbii_in_Costa_Rica

Helgen K.M.; Pinto M.; Kays R.; Helgen L.; Tsuchiya M.; Quinn A.; Wilson D.; Maldonado J. (15 August 2013). "Taxonomic revision of the olingos (Bassaricyon), with description of a new species, the Olinguito." ZooKeys 324:1-83. Retrieved on January 13, 2014.

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"John F. Kennedy Speeches: Radio and Television Address to the American People on the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, July 26, 1963." John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. Retrieved on January 13, 2013. 

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Kays R.W. (2000). "The behavior and ecology of olingos (Bassaricyon gabbii) and their competition with kinkajous (Potos flavus) in central Panama." Mammalia 64:1-10.

Koepfli K.-P.; Gompper M.E.; Eizirik E.; Ho C.-C.; Linden L.; Maldonado J.E.; Wayne R.K. (2007). "Phylogeny of the Procyonidae (Mammalia: Carnivora): Molecules, morphology and the Great American Interchange." Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 43(3):1076-1095. Retrieved on January 13, 2014.

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Pontes, A. R. M. and Chivers, D. J. (2002). "Abundance, habitat use and conservation of the olingo Bassaricyon sp in Maraca Ecological Station, Roraima, Brazilian Amazonia. Studies on Neotropical Fauna and Environment 37:105-109.

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  • Available at: http://www.departments.bucknell.edu/biology/resources/msw3/browse.asp?id=14001596


Sounds emitted by olingos, even when hidden in trees, include alarm calls, sneezes, and "whey-chuck" and "wey-toll" repetitions.

observant olingo on branch
observant olingo on branch
the end which is also the beginning
the end which is also the beginning

Mischievous spider Anansi's interactions with creatures dwelling in the Guyana rainforest include sharing food from kukrit tree, Guyana's tree of life, with an olingo.

Brer Anansi the Trickster (Volume 7)

North and South America: black t-shirt

Olingos are native to both continents of the Americas.
North and South America
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DerdriuMarriner, All Rights Reserved
DerdriuMarriner, All Rights Reserved
Updated: 09/30/2021, DerdriuMarriner
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DerdriuMarriner on 01/14/2014

VioletteRose, Olingos definitely give the impression, when looking into their eyes, that they are looking back. They are charmers.

VioletteRose on 01/14/2014

wow great eyes he has, interesting article!

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