The Olingo: Mysterious and Little Known, It Has Long Intrigued Scientists (VIDEO)

Costa Rica has a wide assortment of cute mammals, but one of the cutest has to be the olingo. This adorable relative of the raccoon seems to leap out of our imaginations and into the rainforest trees in Costa Rica. With their thick fur, they resemble a teddy bear with a tail as they prowl through the trees throughout much of Central America and northern South America.

A northern olingo photographed in Monteverde, Costa Rica. Image license CC Attribution 3.0 by Greg Basco via Wikimedia Commons

The Olingo Is a Night Owl

These graceful little climbers are relatives of raccoons and are in the family Procyonidae. But here’s where things get a bit…odd. Or seemingly odd, anyway. Admittedly, the olingo looks quite a lot like the kinkajou.

As you can see in the photo below:

Image license via Flickr, The Commons by the Kalamazoo Public Library

But although these two look quite alike, the olingo is more closely related to the coati. Which is this little clown-faced cutie in the next photo.

White-nosed coati, near Volcan Arenal, Costa Rica. Image license CC SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Olingos are in the genus Bassaricyon, and due to recent advances in DNA science, morphometrics, field observations, and numerous other studies demonstrate that they are indeed, closely related to the coati, according to The National Institutes of Health.

For the olingo and the kinkajou, looks can be deceiving.

These studies show that olingos and coatis diverged about 10.2 million years ago. Kinkajous, on the other paw, diverged from other extant procyonids much earlier — approximately 22.6 million years ago. The similarities between kinkajous and olingos are an example of parallel evolution. In other words, the two species are adapted to similar niches, having split from a common ancestor, and developed similar morphological and behavioral characteristics. And what that means is that although they look alike, both species are very different Kinkajous, for instance, have a prehensile tail that allows them to hang in monkey-like fashion from tree branches. Olingos don’t have this.

Both species are primarily nocturnal, and they share a similar diet that includes fruits, nectar, lizards, insects, and the occasional small mammal or baby bird, The Animal Files reports. But they are also on the menu for some creatures, including large snakes, tayras, and large cats, including the jaguar. That in itself must be challenging for these huge cats because olingos live high in the tree canopy.

And that high-living nocturnal lifestyle also means little is known about these cute furballs.

So what do we know about the olingo?

Northern olingo photographed in Monteverde, Costa Rica. Image license CC Attribution 3.0 by Samantha Burke, via Wikimedia Commons

Along with finding out that resemblances between the olingo and the kinkajou can be deceiving, scientists also began to understand that olingos varied enough from one region to another that they have now broken them into four separate subspecies. In Costa Rica, we have Harris’s olingo (Bassaricyon lasius), and the Northern, or Bushy-tailed olingo (Bassaricyon gabii).

Party of one

These charming creatures are primarily solitary except during the breeding season, which in Costa Rica, can occur at any time of the year. They are quite talkative and will seek each other out with loud calls.  After a gestation period of 73 to 74 days, one youngster is born, weighing about 1.9 lbs. It takes between two weeks to one month for the creature’s eyes to open, and they become sexually mature between the ages of 21 months to two years.

You’ve met the olingo. Now meet the olinguito.

What’s even more adorable than an olingo? An olinguito. This cute creature existed right under our noses for 100 years without anyone even noticing, Smithsonian Insider notes. It turns out the olinguito (Bassaricyon neblina) was observed in the wild and kept in zoos. Museums preserved specimens that remained virtually unnoticed until a team of scientists from the Smithsonian Institution began studying them. That led the scientists from the museum specimens in Chicago to the cloud forests of South America and then on to laboratories in Washington, D.C. to study the genetics of the newly discovered creature.

The results? This little cutie right here.

A wild olinguito is prowling at the Tandayapa Bird Lodge in Ecuador. Image license CC Attribution 3.0 by Mark Gurney via Wikimedia Commons

This beautiful little raccoon relative is the first carnivore discovered on the American continent in more than 35 years. Weighing only two pounds, it’s smaller than the three-pound olingo. Smithsonian also reports it’s the newest member of the order Carnivora, something that’s very rare in the 21st Century. Living mainly in the cloud forests of the Andes, at least 42 percent of the olinguito’s habitat has been destroyed for pastureland or urban development.

What does the future hold for the olingo?

The northern olingo is listed as a species of least concern by the IUCN Redlist of Threatened Species, but the situation is less rosy for the olinguito, with so much deforestation underway in its Andean home. It’s listed as near threatened by the IUCN. Sadly, all species of olingo are in decline with rainforests falling to cattle pasture and urban growth. These cute creatures are reasonably adaptable and are known to live around people. There’s a good chance they may be with us for many more years to come.

The video below demonstrates just how smart olingos are.

Featured image license CC SA 2.0 by Jeremy Gatten via Wikimedia Commons

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