Without museums, we wouldn’t have discovered a cute, furry critter called the Olinguito – and so much more.

Today marks three years since the discovery of the Olinguito, a mammal with the face of a teddy bear and a serious contender for the world’s cutest mammal. First discovered not in the wilds of South America, where it calls home, but in museum collections, the Olinguito highlights the importance of museum science and the discoveries made by museum scientists both on expeditions and within the walls of museums themselves.

The discovery of the Olinguito made a splash in the media 2013. You couldn’t look at any sort of media without seeing it’s face. But aside from being cute, the discovery of the Olinguito emphasises just how much we still have to learn about the plants and animals that we share the Earth with. If a relatively big, fluffy mammal can still be discovered, imagine what else we still don’t know! And this is a big problem – without knowledge of what species occur where, it’s very difficult to make informed conservation decisions.

The Olinguito, Bassaricyon neblina neblina, in life, in the wild. Image: Mark Gurney
© Helgen, K., et al. (2013)

As you might expect, the discovery of new species often involves arduous expeditions in remote mountains, tropical rainforests or deep sea trenches. And it’s often museum scientists that are the ones out in the pouring rain, baking heat or rough seas making these discoveries. However, some species discoveries happen closer to home, while examining specimens of plants and animals held at museums – often decades after they were collected. Indeed, this was the case for the Olinguito, first suspected to exist by Dr Kristofer Helgen (curator of mammals at the Smithsonian National Museum of History and AMRI Research Associate), through his examination of museum collections.

And it’s not just the Olinguito. Species of all sorts can look very similar, and it’s really easy to overlook any subtle differences in appearance between a known, and an unknown species, especially when in the field. So it’s not surprising that new species are often collected without realising it, and are only later revealed to science upon closer inspection or molecular analysis. Last year alone AMRI scientists discovered 145 new species, and many of these were not made for the first time in the field, but within the walls of the Australian Museum itself.

So, while we celebrate World Olinguito Day, and one seriously cute critter that was discovered due to museum collections, let’s also celebrate all the museum expeditions, collections and scientists that are discovering and documenting our planet’s amazing biodiversity!

Dr Jodi Rowley
Curator of Amphibian & Reptile Conservation Biology

More information

Helgen, K.M., Pinto, C.M., Kays, R., Helgen, L.E., Tsuchiya, M.T., Quinn, A. and Wilson, D.E. (2013). Taxonomic revision of the olingos (Bassaricyon), with description of a new species, the Olinguito. ZooKeys 324: 1-83.

Yong, E. (2016). Natural history museums are teeming with undiscovered species. The Atlantic.