‘The arboreal olinguito surely owes part of its news value to its forward-facing, appealingly baby-like eyes.’ Link to video: Olinguito: the newly discovered mammal
Welcome to the world, olinguito, the first new carnivore to be discovered in the western hemisphere for 35 years. I just hope this isn’t going to be a brief acquaintance. Sadly, given our track record, you might do well to beware Homo sapiens bearing binomials (in this case, Bassaricyon neblina, the latter being Spanish for “fog”). Once they’ve got you named, it can be a brief window between identification and disappearance, as 20th-century discoveries such as the okapi (1901) and the coelacanth (1938), both now reduced to threatened status, found out.
Extinction can be a frighteningly speedy process, as the dodo, Steller’s sea cow, the great auk, and the passenger pigeon discovered. Being cute (the olinguito has been described as a cross between a house cat and a teddy bear) doesn’t help either – just ask the giant panda. Biologists decry our fixation on “charismatic megafaune”, pointing out that for every cuddly polar bear there are 10 insects of equal environmental importance and concern. Yet such is our anthropomorphic tendency to recreate the natural world in our own image; the arboreal olinguito surely owes part of its news value to its forward-facing, appealingly baby-like eyes.
It may be a cliche that what you observe you also destroy, but, sadly, the olinguito’s fellow creatures in obscurity have found it to be true. Take the thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, a chimeric marsupial mash-up with the legs of a kangaroo, the stripes of a big cat and the head of a dog. It lived safe in its island fastness – until European settlers came along. A letter from William Paterson, the lieutenant governor of Van Diemen’s Land, written in 1805, reported an animal “of a truly singular and nouvel description … of a species perfectly distinct from any of the animal creation hitherto known, and certainly the only powerful and terrific member of the carniverous [sic] and voracious tribe yet discovered on any part of New Holland or its adjacent islands”.
Such a dramatic diagnosis – Paterson saw the thylacine as wolf-like in appearance and habits – sealed the beast’s fate. Hunted for its apparent threat to the sheep industry (in fact, it wasn’t a pack animal at all), by 1850 Reverend John West was reporting that “it is probable that in a very few years this animal, so highly interesting to the zoologist, will become extinct; it is now extremely rare, even in the wildest and least frequented parts of the island”. By the 1930s, the last thylacines were languishing in London and Hobart zoos, making their final public appearances in forlorn moving images.
Meanwhile, across the Tasman Sea, the 4m high moas of New Zealand had long since been hunted to extinction by the Maori when they were identified in 1844 from fossil remains by Richard Owen, namer of the most famous of all extinct beasts, the dinosaur. Even now, New Zealand may be about to witness a new extinction, that of the tiny Maui’s dolphin. Only identified in 2002, its numbers are down to just 55, which are increasingly prey to trawling and gillnet entanglement, and they are unlikely to survive the century.
With barely one-quarter of the species in the world’s oceans so far identified, many marine animals may be going extinct, even before we give them names. Last year a mother and calf pair of whales stranded on New Zealand’s Bay of Plenty, were found to be rare spade-toothed beaked whales. Amazingly, no one has ever seen these deep-diving, cryptic animals alive.
The forest and the ocean may be the last resorts of the undiscovered, but imposing names on animals is a symptom of our supposed dominion – one that began with religious myth, continued in Enlightenment rationality and proceeded via exploration to exploitation. Catalogued, indexed, tagged and tracked, wild animals must be encompassed in our schemata, giving up their mystery in the process. The olinguito isn’t new – it was there all along. Science may yet protect it; but how long will it be before it ends up caged in a street market, or its body parts prized for their aphrodisiac qualities? Welcome olinguito. Now get back up that tree.
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