WASHINGTON -- Imagine a mini-raccoon with a teddy bear face that is so cute it's hard to resist, let alone overlook. But somehow science did -- until now.
Researchers announced Thursday a rare discovery of a new species of mammal called the olinguito. The reddish-brown animal is about 2 feet long with a long tail and weighs about 2 pounds.
It belongs to a grouping of large creatures that include dogs, cats and bears.
The critter leaps through the trees of mountainous forests of Ecuador and Colombia at night, according to a Smithsonian researcher who has spent the past decade tracking them.
But the adorable olinguito shouldn't have been too hard to find. One of them once lived in the Smithsonian-run National Zoo in Washington for a year in a case of mistaken identity.
"It's been kind of hiding in plain sight for a long time" despite its extraordinary beauty, said Kristofer Helgen, the Smithsonian's curator of mammals.
The little zoo critter, named Ringerl, was mistaken for a sister species, the olingo. Before she died in 1976, Ringerl was shipped from zoo to zoo in Louisville, Ky., Tucson, Ariz., Salt Lake City, Washington and New York City to try to get it to breed with other olingos.
"It turns out she wasn't fussy," Helgen said. "She wasn't the right species."
The discovery is described in a study in the journal ZooKey.
Helgen first figured olinguitos were different from olingos when he was looking at pelts and skeletons in a museum. He later led a team to South America in 2006.
"When we went to the field we found it in the very first night," said study co-author Roland Kays of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. "It was almost like it was waiting for us."