On August 15th 2013, researchers working jointly through The Smithsonian and The American Museum of Natural History announced the discovery of a new mammal, previously unknown to science. Called the olinguito, the new species is a member of the raccoon and kinkajou family native to the cloud forests of Colombia and Ecuador. Since August, olinguitos have been everywhere, covered by National Geographic, CNN, and The Huffington Post, to name a few.
As the first new species of American carnivore described in 35 years, the olinguito is big news for science. But how did researchers find this elusive animal? As it turns out, the first specimens were identified in a museum collection. They had been stored at The Field Museum in Chicago since the early 1900s, but had been misidentified as an existing sister species until this year. DNA and morphological analysis confirmed that the olinguito is indeed a distinct species, and is evolutionarily the oldest member of the olingo genus.
This month, The American Museum of Natural History and The National Museum of Australia co-convened Collecting the Future: a conference on the importance of museum collections in the face of global climate change. Dr. Nancy Simmons, Curator-in-charge in The Division of Mammology at The American Museum of Natural History, highlighted the importance of the olinguito’s discovery in this context. In an age of increasing budget cuts, when many institutions are rapidly losing federal funding, it is important to note that the olinguito was discovered in a museum. Our understanding of modern biodiversity is informed by collections that have existed for decades, and with recent advances in molecular biology, DNA from museum specimens can also be used to supplement the growing genetic library of life on earth. Museums are massive repositories of tangible history; their collections are priceless physical resources, providing a snapshot of our rapidly changing world.