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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And now a case of mistaken identity. It involves a creature that looks like a cross between a house cat and a teddy bear. It lives high in the cloud forests of the Andes. For more than a hundred years, scientists thought it was a cousin of the raccoon called the Olingo. But recently, they took another look and realized it was really an entirely new species. They're now calling it the Olinguito or Little Olingo.

NPR's Rhitu Chatterjee explains how its true identity to came to light.

RHITU CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: Kristofer Helgen is a curator of mammals at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. He discovered this new cousin of the raccoon while sifting through dead specimens.

KRISTOFER HELGEN: I pulled out a drawer. It was not anything I'd ever seen before. This was not any member of the raccoon family that anyone was familiar with.

CHATTERJEE: He started comparing the bodies and skulls of this animal with those of the animal it was stored with. He takes me to a storage room in the Smithsonian, where he's lined up a range of dead specimens.

HELGEN: Come in close. I want to introduce you to the members of the raccoon family here.

CHATTERJEE: On the left are two very dead, flattened raccoons. On the far right are two much smaller animals, lighter in color than the raccoons. Their tails are lacking the characteristic raccoon bands and their fur is softer, longer, thicker because, as Helgen later discovered, this new cousin lives up high in the Andes Mountains in Colombia and Ecuador. In fact, every aspect he looked at, this looked like a novel species right down to the teeth.

(SOUNDBITE OF RATTLING)

CHATTERJEE: He pulls a skull out of a box.

HELGEN: Look at those molars there, those big chunky teeth in the mouth.

CHATTERJEE: Helgen has named the new species Olinguito, which means Little Olingo. That's because of the striking resemblance to another member of the raccoon family, the Olingo. He eventually went looking for the Olinguito in the cloud forests of Ecuador, because that's where the museum specimens came from, and found that its alive and well, although shy and elusive.

Helgen and his team have introduced Olinguito to the world in a new study published in the journal Zoo Keys.

Rhitu Chatterjee, NPR News.

CORNISH: To see how the Olinguito stacks up against other members of the raccoon family, go to NPR.org.

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