Lynn: Sometimes, the most surprising discoveries have been right under our noses for years! Being observant, curious and asking questions can lead to valuable new knowledge. This is an important lesson for young naturalists, who sometimes think all nature is known by science. Sandra Markle’s fascinating new book, The Search for Olinguito: Discovering a New Species (2017), chronicles how a curious young naturalist noticed something interesting and starting asking questions. What he discovered changed the understanding of a creature known to science for over 100 years.
In 2002, Kristofer Helgen, the young scientist in charge of the mammal collection at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, started trying to answer questions about the olingo species. Olingos are members of the raccoon family who live in the cloud forests of South America. Carefully preserved pelts were in museum collections around the world. As Helgen began to closely examine the pelts, he realized something extraordinary: Not only were some a distinctly different color, but the fur was softer and the ears smaller and fuzzier. Even the tail was different. Helgen began to wonder if he had discovered an entirely new species altogether.
And so Helgen began a ten-year process to verify his theory. It included visiting 75 museum collections, examining DNA evidence, and traveling to the jungle to learn if any animals of the new species were still living. Markle’s clear, interesting text makes the research process understandable to a young reader—but it’s also an almost breathless story of adventure. Markle enlivens necessary background information on the cloud forest ecosystem, scientific classification and scientific methods, and the steps needed for a new species to become officially recognized.
This new species, the olinguito, is fuzzy with big eyes and just plain adorable. Inviting, large photographs add to the reader’s understanding, and the book design enhances the entire package, including back matter with a glossary, source notes, resources, and provocative discussion questions. This is an ideal book to use in a second- to fourth-grade classroom studying the scientific method or nature, and it’s short enough to read aloud to younger students.