Science

When giant otters roamed the Earth

When giant otters roamed the Earth”

A huge wolf-sized otter which lived around 6 million years ago in the wetlands of south-west China was probably the dominant predator of its time, according to an global team of researchers.

S. melilutra was likely the size of a wolf and lived in the wetlands of present-day southwest China, and its ecological niche in its habitat was likely that of a top predator.

The otter, named Siamogale melilutra, lived some six million years ago and belongs to an ancient lineage of extinct otters, which goes back at least 18 million years. "That's not what we found", says Z. Jack Tseng, PhD, who led the project. "That's not what we found", said Z. Jack Tseng, from the University at Buffalo, and research associate at the American Museum of Natural History and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

Initially, the authors of the study had expected that the prehistoric otter jaw would have similar characteristics to the jaws of modern day species, but capable of creating more force due to the extinct animal's larger size. According to a new study carried out by an worldwide team of scientists, however, the otters we know and love today had a far more formidable ancestor - a large mammal known as Siamogale melilutra.

Usually, creatures with more powerful jaws tend to eat harder foods but this is not the case with modern otters. Based on the new study's findings, S. melilutra's jaws would have been strong enough to crush the shells of big mollusks or the bones of birds and small mammals like rodents, though what exactly it ate is unknown.

The research, published in the journal, Scientific Reports, provides insight into the life of this oversized otter.

The scientists performed a computed tomography (CT), which scanned the otter's skill.

The team also made a model for S. melilutra, using CT scans of fossils as a guide.

Digital, 3-D reconstructions show the skulls - including the jaws - of the roughly 15-pound common otter Lutra lutra (left), and the roughly 110-pound Siamogale melilutra, a giant prehistoric otter with a surprisingly powerful bite (right). This structure and stiffness could mean that S. melilutra had a firm bite, even for its size.

Where modern otters reach for a rock to open a hard mussel or whelk, S. melilutra had jaws so powerful they could crush even the thickest seashells to smithereens.

Dr. Denise Su, Curator and Head of Paleobotany & Paleoecology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, said: "At the time that the otter lived, the area where its remains were found included a swamp or a shallow lake surrounded by evergreen forest or dense woodland".

In this wet and forested environment, the otter's powerful jaws may have given it an edge over other predators which could not hunt in water or crush the shells of aquatic prey.

Dr. Xiaoming Wang, a curator in the Vertebrate Paleontology Department of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, added: "Carnivores are known to evolve powerful jaws, often for the objective of cracking the bones of their prey".

The 13 living otter species are found throughout the Americas, Europe, Asia and Africa.

Otters are cute semiaquatic mammals, whose charming lutrine behavior has launched hundreds, if not thousands, of online videos.

Although scientists can't be sure, they think the otter was unusual in exploiting a varied diet.



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