We talked with Kays for the winter issue of NC State magazine about his role on a team that confirmed a new mammal species, the olinguito, during a 2006 expedition to the cloud forests of Ecuador. News of the discovery — which came after research in museums and elsewhere suggested that such a species might exist — captured the attention around the globe when it was announced last summer.
Our interview with Kays covered more ground than we could fit in the magazine, so here are excerpts from the rest of the interview:
What do you know about the olinguito’s diet? We definitely saw them eating fruit, so we know they eat fruit. If you look at their teeth, they’re kind of pointy like a predator or like an insect eater. So we think they might eat some other stuff.
How were you able to get so much information about the olinguito by looking at in the trees? Well, we shot one and put it in the museum collections. If you want to describe a new species, you need to have a voucher specimen. You need to have that in your hand. We didn’t want to kill any of them. It’s not very fun. But we had to have our vouchers so that other scientists can go back and verify our findings, and also so we can have the fresh DNA to make these comparisons.
What does this discovery tell us about the area where the olinguito was found? It shows that the tree canopies are this sort of frontier of discovery, that there’s still a lot of unknown stuff up there. I’m sure there’s more discoveries to be made in these forests, and especially in the canopies.
How does the olinguito compare to other olingos? This one is a lot redder, has a bushier tail and is smaller – it’s actually the smallest member now of the raccoon family.
How is it possible that we’re still discovering new mammal species at this point? Every year we’re finding new mammals, and most of them are bats and rats and smaller things. But the age of discovery in mammals is still ongoing. There’s still lots and lots to learn.
Why are such discoveries important? There are still things to learn about our planet and still just this basic cataloguing of what’s here that is ongoing. It’s an important endeavor. This discovery, in particular, highlights the importance of these cloud forest habitats, that these are really special places that are really diverse. In addition to the olinguito, there’s a special bear called the spectacled bear that lives only in South America, only in these cloud forests. This is a really special habitat that is under siege by developing agriculture. This really highlights the fact that these are biologically rich places that deserve protection.
Were there any common mistakes in the reporting of the discovery? Yes, but it’s a little complicated so I can’t necessarily blame them. They reported that it’s the first new carnivore [discovered] in 35 years. But when we say carnivore in this way we mean member of the order Carnivora, which is a group of mammals that includes the raccoons, the bears, the weasels, the dogs, the cats. And most of them eat meat, but a lot of them don’t. So in this case, this is a fruit-eating carnivore. And so the press messed that up a lot — they called it a meat eater.