Olinguito (Bassaricyon neblina): Ring-Tailed Discovery in the Lofty Andes and Museum Fundraising Toy

by DerdriuMarriner

Olinguitos (Bassaricyon neblina) are cuddly bear-faced, house cat-sized, ring-tailed mammals whose neotropical presence is one of the 21st century's great scientific discoveries.

Common names for animals sometimes are considered impermanent and imprecise.

Scientific names often are deemed less fleeting and more exacting. Scientific procedure nevertheless demands re-collection, re-examination, and re-interpretation of data. Scientific names consequently do not remain carved in stone. Their appropriateness is conditioned by access to specimens and advances in technology.

Taxonomic overhaul may seem of major or minor import depending upon whether changes involve refining names or restructuring categories. The discovery of previously unknown animals always numbers among the more exciting reasons for revisiting scientific nomenclature. One of the most endearingly exciting examples of modern scientific breakthroughs, and their impacts upon scientific classification, remains the discovery of the olinguito in South America.

The discovery involves a small mammal previously unknown to non-indigenous researchers, residents and visitors of the Andes Mountains in their northern South American range. There is no known common name for the omnivorous carnivore. Scientists opine that the reclusive tree-dweller’s presence is equally mysterious to indigenous peoples and mountain-dwelling farmers.

The diminutive mountain-lover’s existence nevertheless remains worldwide knowledge since the discovery’s official announcement on August 15, 2013, by Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s Mammals Department Curator Kristofer Helgen with collaborators:
•Lauren E. Helgen, Smithsonian;
•Roland Kays, North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences;
•Jesús E. Maldonado, Smithsonian;
•Christian Miguel Pinto Baez, American Museum of Natural History;
•Aleta Quinn, Smithsonian;
•Mirian T.N. Tsuchiya, Smithsonian;
•Don E. Wilson, Smithsonian.

Ringerl at Louisville Zoo: A new species hidden in plain sight

Ringerl, who was thought to be an olingo, was really an olinguito, which is why she rebuffed matings with olingos.
photo by Ivo Poglayen-Neuwall
photo by Ivo Poglayen-Neuwall


The breakthrough nevertheless does not constitute the first observation of the raccoon relative. The olinguito instead emerges as a 100+-years-old staple to researchers of museum specimens and visitors of zoo-exhibited mammals. For example, zoo personnel and zoological researchers remember Ringerl as an amiably petite but -- seemingly -- unexpectedly stubborn Colombian-born mammal. For almost a decade -- from 1967, when a German-speaking couple gifted her to Kentucky’s zoo in Louisville, until her death in the world’s largest metropolitan zoo, at Bronx Park, in 1976 -- Ringerl resisted all efforts to breed with male zoo-mates at D.C.’s National Zoological Park as well as in:

  • Salt Lake City, Utah;
  • Tucson, Arizona.

But unbeknownst to everyone, Ringerl was an olinguita, not an olinga.


Closeup of Western Lowland olingo (Bassaricyon medius medius):

Olinguitos have long been misidentified as their olingo relatives.
Las Pampas, adjacent to Otonga Cloud Forest Reserve, central Ecuador
Las Pampas, adjacent to Otonga Cloud Forest Reserve, central Ecuador


Knowledge of the olingo’s (Bassaricyon spp) existence dates back at least to the nineteenth century in terms of non-indigenous and non-Spanish collectors, researchers, residents, and trekkers of the Americas. The olingo indeed has “face” and name recognition as an attractive, inquisitive relative of fellow ring-tailed procyonids:

  • Cacomistles (Bassariscus sumichrasti) of Central and North America;
  • Coatis -- brown-nosed (Nasua nasua) of South America, mountain (Nasuella meridensisNasuella olivacea) of northern South America, and white-nosed (Nasua narica) of North through South America;
  • Kinkajous (Potos flavus) of Central and South America;
  • Raccoons (Procyon lotor) of North America;
  • Ring-tailed cats (Bassariscus astutus) of North America.

Differences between the olingo and the now-recognized olinguito went unrecognized because of inaccessible habitats and technological obstacles.


Bassaricyon neblina "Olinguito" in the wild in an Andean cloud forest

Tandayapa Bird Lodge, northwestern Ecuador
Tandayapa Bird Lodge, northwestern Ecuador


Questions about permissible variations within genera and species constantly arise among scientists. Quiet challenges over olingo specimens date back almost 100 years in the United States of America. For example, New York has a fine collection of olingo skins, skulls and teeth. There is a record from 1920 of the American Museum of Natural History’s first bird and mammal curator and first ornithology departmental head pondering the implications of:

  • Denser coats;
  • Differently-shaped teeth;
  • Guinea pig-sized lengths;
  • Reddish orange colors;
  • Shorter snouts;
  • Smaller skulls.

The ponderings relate to the specimens’ support for components of Allen’s rule: atypically shorter limbs indicate elevations higher than the olingo’s known range. The ponderer was Joel Aseph Allen (July 19, 1838 - August 29, 1921).


American ornithologist and zoologist Joel Aseph Allen, June 1885

frontispiece, Autobiographical and a Bibliography of Joseph Asaph Allen (1916)
frontispiece, Autobiographical and a Bibliography of Joseph Asaph Allen (1916)


Eighty-three years later, Dr Helgen attested to Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History atypical specimens from elevations too high for olingos. He checked specimens in:

  • Ann Arbor’s Museum of Zoology;
  • Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology;
  • Berlin’s Museum für Naturkunde;
  • D.C.’s Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History;
  • Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology;
  • Lawrence’s University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute;
  • London’s Natural History Museum;
  • Los Angeles County’s Natural History Museum;
  • New Haven’s Peabody Museum of Natural History;
  • New York’s American Museum of Natural History;
  • Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences;
  • Quito’s Museo Ecuatoriano de Ciencias Naturales and Museos de Zoología;
  • Stockholm’s Naturhistoriska Riksmuseet;
  • Texas A&M’s Biodiversity Research and Teaching Collections;
  • Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum.

In 2006, he traversed Ecuadorian olinguito homelands.


skulls of Olinguito subspecies

K. Helgen et al., Taxonomic revision of the olingos (Bassaricyon)Figure 10, page 25
K. Helgen et al., Taxonomic revision of the olingos (Bassaricyon)Figure 10, page 25


Scientists consider the olinguito the smallest extant member of the raccoon family, Procyonidae. Adult head-and-body lengths hover around 14 inches (35.56 centimeters). Adult tail lengths mature to 13-17 inches (33.02-43.18 centimeters). Adult weights may fluctuate around 1.98 pounds (900 grams).

Adult male olinguitos occupy the upper ranges in regard to mature dimensions even though the olinguita and the olinguito typically look super-close in size. The overlap undoubtedly results from the non-agoraphobic procyonid’s active lifestyle and energizing diet. Both females and males indeed tend to leave fecal droppings which are reminiscent in shape and size to small blueberries (Cyanococcus spp) and which indicate opportunistic consumption of:

  • Epiphytic flower nectars;
  • Tree-dwelling arthropods;
  • Wild fruits, especially tomato-sized figs (Ficus spp).


Fig trees comprise edible habitats for olinguitos, who also enjoy eating their fruits.

strangler fig (Ficus ssp.) in Costa Rica
strangler fig (Ficus ssp.) in Costa Rica


The food sources which olinguitos favor easily can be accessed above-ground. The branch-jumping tree-bounder’s black-tipped, orange- to red-brown or tan coat functions as effective camouflage among ground-level vegetation and in tree canopies. The olinguita’s and the olinguito’s bushy, discrete-banded tail and limber, reversible ankles help the big-eyed, round-faced, small-eared mammal descend slopes and trees, head-first and squirrel-like. But olinguitos may:

  • Devote their lives to exercising, foraging, mating, parenting and sleeping in fog-shrouded treetops;
  • Employ balance and flexibility more through horizontal than vertical space.

Per Dr. Helgen, olinguitos may number in the tens of thousands in their known ranges precisely because they commit to high-elevation life high up in the cloud forest’s epiphyte-covered, gnarled-branched, mist-protected, thick-trunked neotropical trees.



"Bassaricyon neblina sp. n. (Bassaricyon neblina ruber subsp. n. of western slopes of Western Andes of Colombia)"
"Bassaricyon neblina sp. n. (Bassaricyon neblina ruber subsp. n. of western slopes of Western Andes of Colombia)"


Cloud forests carpet the Andes Mountains at elevations of 5,000-9,000 feet (1,524-2,743 meters). The interactions which Dr Helgen describes and the living and preserved specimens which many scientists and wildlife-lovers know cluster in central Colombia’s and Ecuador’s cloud forested-mountain corridors. But Dr Helgen inclines toward hypothesizing that olinguitos may be found -- not only in the two countries’ Central and Western Andes but also:

  • Colombia’s Eastern Andes;
  • Ecuador’s Loja-Huancabamba, Pallatanga-Sangay, and Quijos regions.

He opines that healthy populations also may exist northward in rain-forest habitats in the Central American countries of:

  • Costa Rica;
  • Guatemala;
  • Honduras;
  • Nicaragua;
  • Panama.

He also opts for seeking robust populations eastward and southward in the South American countries of:

  • Bolivia;
  • Brazil;
  • Guyana;
  • Peru;
  • Venezuela.


Bioclimatic distribution model and localities for Bassaricyon neblina

Fig. 11, p. 27 ~ MAX-ENT model with vouchered occurrence records, 19 bioclimatic variables, 1 potential habitat variable
Fig. 11, p. 27 ~ MAX-ENT model with vouchered occurrence records, 19 bioclimatic variables, 1 potential habitat variable


Dr Helgen’s hypotheses accord with the biogeographies of native and naturalized olingos and olinguitos. The most recently-shared ancestor of olingos and olinguitos dates back 3,000,000-4,000,000 years ago. The timing overlaps with the creations of:

  • The Isthmus of Panama, as a land bridge for the Great American Biotic Interchange’s mingling of the previously isolated freshwater and terrestrial fauna of the northern and southern Americas;
  • The North Andes Mountains, as a terrestrial obstacle to dispersal.

The creation of the first points to the spread of olingo populations from their original homeland in Central America. The second suggests the possibility of olinguitos overlapping with their wider-ranging “sister” olingos in the same Central and South American habitats but at higher elevations.


Olinguito: newly discovered species universally described as "cute"

Tandayapa Bird Lodge, northwestern Ecuador
Tandayapa Bird Lodge, northwestern Ecuador


Olinguitas are suspected of delivering one newborn per litter since they have one set of mammary glands. Scientists are uncertain of:

  • Breeding times;
  • Gestation lengths;
  • Kit-raising procedures.

They are likewise uncertain of total populations. Dr. Helgen nevertheless considers that olinguitos may be more near-threatened than threatened despite 42% of their habitat being destroyed, fragmented, and impacted by:

  • Farmers;
  • Loggers;
  • Mountain-dwellers;
  • Ranchers.  

He details as conducive to the nocturnal arborealist’s survival:

  • Adaptability;
  • Inaccessibility.

Diversification into subspecies – hershkovitzi of the Central Andes’ eastern slopes, neblina of the western Andes’ western slopes, osborni of the western Andes’ eastern slopes, ruber of the western Andes’ Urrao district -- and year-round life 32.81 feet (10 meters) above-ground indeed guard olinguitos from predators.


olinguito triptych

Tandayapa Bird Lodge, northwestern Ecuador
Tandayapa Bird Lodge, northwestern Ecuador


Becoming acquainted with reclusively survivalist olinguitos constitutes the scientific discovery of 2013. The insect-munching, nectar-sipping frugivore contributes to environmental well-being by:

  • Acting as seed-dispersing pollinators of airborne plants;
  • Controlling neotropical arthropod populations.

The super-photogenic species counts upon respect from wildlife-lovers and researchers. The future nevertheless depends upon economic, environmental, legislative and technological factors. Do private and public agencies consider as priorities allocating resources to research olinguitos and save their habitats? Economic analysis also has to consider the impact upon cloud forest-dwelling wildlife of such environmental stresses as:

  • Air, ground and water pollution;
  • Climate change;
  • Extreme events.

Must protection of olinguitos be governmental priorities?


The North Carolina Museum of Natural History’s robust sales of toy olinguitos say “YES!”


Olinguito, northwestern Costa Rican town of Monteverde:

Scenic town is renowned for Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve (la Reserva Forestal de Monteverde), dubbed by National Geographic as "the jewel in the crown of cloud forest reserves."
photo by Greg Basco
photo by Greg Basco



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


Local hunter with olinguito specimens (Bassaricyon neblina hershkovitzi) in each arm and long-nosed weasel (Mustela frenata) at his neckline:

September 6, 1951 photo by American mammalogist Philip Hershkovitz (October 12, 1909 – February 15, 1997)
San Agustín, southwestern Colombia
San Agustín, southwestern Colombia

Sources Consulted


Allen, Joel Asaph. (1916). Autobiographical Notes and A Bibliography of the Scientific Publications of Joel Aseph Allen. New York: The Museum.

  • Available via Internet Archive at: https://archive.org/details/autobiographical00alleiala 

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Family & Kids, Pets. Retrieved on January 4, 2014.

  • Available at: http://living.msn.com/family-parenting/pets/baby-olinguito-found-in-colombia

Bittel, Jason. (22 August 2013). "Seznamte se, to je olinguito." TabletMedia. Retrieved on January 4, 2014.

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Borenstein, Seth. (15 August 2013). "Adorable New Mammal Species Found in 'Plain Sight'." Internet Archive Wayback Machine: ABC News. Retrieved on January 4, 2014.

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Helgen, K. M., M. Pinto, R. Kays, L. Helgen, M. Tsuchiya, A. Quinn, D. Wilson, J. Maldonado. (15 August 2013). "Taxonomic Revision of the Olingos (Bassaricyon), with Description of a New Species, the Olinguito." ZooKeys 324:1-83. Retrieved on January 4, 2014.  DOI:10.3897/zookeys.324.5827

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"Olinguito, primer descubrimento de especie carnívora en las Américas en 35 años." ABC: Actualidad. Retrieved on January 4, 2014.

  • Available at: http://www.abc.es/ciencia/20130815/abci-nueva-especie-carnivora-olinguito-201308151703.html

Ramos, Graça Andrade. (15 August 2013). "Descoberta nova espécie de mamífero, o Olinguito." RTP Notícias: Mundo. Retrieved on January 4, 2014.

  • Available at: http://www.rtp.pt/noticias/index.php?article=673910&tm=7&layout=121&visual=49

Sample, Ian. (15 August 2013). "Carnivore 'Teddy Bear' Emerges from the Mists of Ecuador." The Guardian: Taxonomy. Retrieved on January 4, 2014.

  • Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/science/2013/aug/15/teddy-bear-olinguito-ecuador-carnivore

Silva Herrera, Javier. (15 August 2013). "Nace un olinguito para nuestra biodiversidad." El Tiempo: Vida de Hoy Ciencia. Retrieved on January 4, 2014.

  • Available at: http://www.eltiempo.com/vida-de-hoy/ciencia/ARTICULO-WEB-NEW_NOTA_INTERIOR-12992722.html

"Smithsonian Scientists Discover New Carnivore: The Olinguito." Smithsonian Science: Conservation Biology. Retrieved on January 4, 2014.

  • Available at: http://smithsonianscience.org/2013/08/olinguito/

Stromberg, Joseph. (15 August 2013). "For the First Time in 35 Years, A New Carnivorous Mammal Species is Discovered in the American Continents." Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved on January 4, 2014. 

  • Available at: 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

Velástegui, Cecilia. (2013). "Olinguito Speaks Up / Olinguito Alza la Voz." Libros Publishing LLC.

Wells. Georgia. "House Cat + Teddy Bear = The Olinguito." The Wall Street Journal: Arts & Entertainment Speakeasy. Retrieved on January 4, 2014.

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the end which is also the beginning
the end which is also the beginning

Enjoyable for all ages, "Olinguito Speaks Up" is a charming tribute to endangered species and to the value of the world's biodiversity.

A "takeaway" question asks: Should extinction turn endangered species into fairy tales remembered only in cloud-shrouded forests?
Olinguito Speaks Up

North and South America: black t-shirt

New World natives, olinguitos have homelands on both continents of the Americas.
North and South America
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Me and my purrfectly purrfect Maine coon kittycat, Augusta "Gusty" Sunshine

Gusty and I thank you for reading this article and hope that our product selection interests you; Gusty Gus receives favorite treats from my commissions.
DerdriuMarriner, All Rights Reserved
DerdriuMarriner, All Rights Reserved
Updated: 09/30/2021, DerdriuMarriner
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DerdriuMarriner on 01/06/2014

AbbyFitz, It's fun to spotlight all these ringtails, so I'm happy that you're enjoying this series. These adorable critters have often been misidentified, so I'm enjoying clearing the confusion.
It's especially exciting to spotlight Olinguitos, which have been hiding in plain sight for so long.

AbbyFitz on 01/04/2014

I love all these animals you're introducing me too. There's so many I haven't heard of before

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