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Today we're talking to Bill Stanley about Kris Helgen's Olinguito!

Here's Kris's paper:


The Brain Scoop is written and hosted by:
Emily Graslie

Created By:
Hank Green

Directed, Edited, Animated, and Scored by:
Michael Aranda

Filmed on Location and Supported by:
The Field Museum in Chicago, IL

Thank you to Martina Šafusová, Diana Raynes, John-Alan Pascoe, Enrico Cioni, Stefanie Winter, Tony Chu, Mariano Cepeda, Marie-Elsa Beaudon, and Seth Bergenholtz for their help in transcribing these videos! :D

*Clanging metal drawer*

Bill Stanley: Okay... Now... You can get right over the other side. There you go. Ready?

Emily Graslie: Yup.

B: Got it?

E: Yup?

B: So this is what, ah, Kris Helgen from the Smithsonian was doing.

E: Kris is a, um, he's a mammalogist from the Smithsonian, is he?

B: Correct. So ah, he's head of mammals at the Smithsonian and he, ah, is somebody who has been to museums all over the world, and goes through the drawers, looks at the specimens, and that's exactly what happened here.
He came in to the carnivore collection and he wanted to review the whole Olingo group... and Olingo is a member of the Raccoon family. So what he was expecting when he was looking at the Olingos was skins that were relatively dark and the hair was relatively short...and he pulled out this drawer and saw something that he knew was different, because it wasn't like the Olingos he was expecting to see.
The red color, and very long, feel how, how furry that is. How fluffy that is.

E: *gasp* It's so soft! It's so soft.

B: Mmm. This was the first step, this was what Kris saw first and he then decided to go to other museums to see if he could find other specimens that would help support his hypothesis.
And, he was able to assemble a list of specimens and get measurements and examine these specimens in these different museums, and he was sure he had a new species but then he teamed up with other mammalogists to go to the areas where these things were collected, to see if they were still there and the first night...

E: Really?

B: The first night, they went into the forest and they saw them

E: Really? And where are they from?

B: They're, so they're from mountain areas in Ecuador, Peru, Columbia. But within the species, he, Kris and his coauthors recognized three subspecies, that is three different components within this new group that are distinct from one another.

E: So not only did he find an entirely new species, he discovered that this new species also contained, like, three, so there's...

B: Three discrete forms within that, that can be differentiated based on morphological characteristics.

E: So often I get the question "Well if you have one squirrel, if you have a dozen squirrels, why do you keep collecting squirrels? why do keep collecting raccoons?"

B: People say well, you just need one or two. No, because you need to figure out are the males different from the females? Are the young different from the old? Are the 1902 different from the 2013?
And, and, its only with series, large series like this, that you can tease apart... ah... If you just did, if we only had this red, this one specimen here, we didn't have these others, and Kris opened up the drawer, and he saw this, he would be intrigued but it's not nearly as compelling as when he sees a series of these skins all looking the same, and he compares it there, and he says 'this is very definitely a distinct form from this.

E: Because before you start making broad determinations about something you need to have an appropriate sample size...

B: Exactly...

E: That's just the nature of doing any kind of statistical work.

B: And... And, my... The analogy I always use is that if you go to Times Square to watch the ball drop, on New Years, and you look around you, you're going to see hundreds of thousands of people and not one will look like you.
If a, if a man from Mars comes down to the earth and says I'm going to describe the human species, and he lands in Korea, he's going to get a very different, picture than if he landed in Sweden, or if he landed in Cameroon. So that same diversity that you see in our own species, needs to be kept in mind when you're thinking about, how do we, how do we document the diversity within any other species, be that squirrel, olingo, bear, whatever.

E: Yeah

B: So that's what, that's why these collections are really vital. I think a lot of people are really surprised when they hear that a new species is discovered but it has been in these museum drawers for as much as 100 years.

E: Yeah.

B: People think we go out to unexplored areas and bring back something new, which we do. But many, many times the new species is, has been here all the time. And this is why these collections are so important and why there are untold stories in each of these cases.

E: So did he look at just morphology? Did he determine that these were a new species just because some were a little more red and had smaller ears, or was there, I'm assuming there's genetic analysis involved?

B: There is. The first step, the first step literally was pulling the drawer out and going 'Wow, that's not at all what I expected' but then was able to team up with people to work on the molecular aspects of it.
So this paper describes not only the morphology but also the DNA perspective, ah, the different types of habitat that they live in and its a, its a pretty beefy publication, but sums up, ah, a lot of the natural history information about the new species and about Olingos in general.

E: And this is really exciting because, when was the last time a new species of carnivore was described?

B: From the Americas, 35 years ago.

E: Really? Its been 35 years?

B: Actually, yeah, and in fact, ironically enough, that species of carnivore, it was named in 1978, was... a... weasel from the Field Museum's collections and it was named by Field Museum biologists.

E: So the moral of the story is that I need to spend more time going through the drawers around here.


...It still has brains on it.