The creature, dubbed an olinguito, is the first new species of carnivore to be identified in the Western Hemisphere in 35 years, the Smithsonian Institution reported Thursday.
Although previously observed in the wild, tucked away in museum collections and even exhibited in zoos around the world, the mysterious olinguito has been a victim of mistaken identity for more than 100 years, scientists said.
Washington's National Zoo had an olinguito in the 1960s but never identified it as a separate species, the researchers said.
Looking like a cross between a house cat and a teddy bear, the 14-inch-long olinguito is the latest scientifically documented member of the family Procyonidae, which it shares with raccoons, coatis and kinkajous, they said.
Closely related olingos, several species of tree-living carnivores, were the subject of a study by the Smithsonian's Kristofer Helgen and colleagues who said close examination of more than 95 percent of the world's olingo specimens in museums, along with DNA testing and the review of historic field data, revealed the existence of the olinguito, a previously undescribed species in the family.
"The discovery of the olinguito shows us that the world is not yet completely explored, its most basic secrets not yet revealed," Helgen said. "If new carnivores can still be found, what other surprises await us? So many of the world's species are not yet known to science."