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Scientists Discover A New Prehistoric Giant Otter Species

Artist's Rendering from Journal of Systematic Paleontology

A new species of giant otters weighing over 100 pounds used to live among the birds and water lilies in the wet forests of Yunnan province in China, scientists have discovered.

The research team found a well-preserved cranium of this new species in an open lignite mine in 2010. These otters are said to have lived six million years ago, and were “two to three times larger than any modern otter species,” according to Denise Su, head of paleobotany and paleoecology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. The otters would have been the size of wolves.

The fossilized skull was almost complete, but had been flattened to an inch and a half thick, NPR reports. Su said,

The bones are pretty fragile, so we couldn’t really reconstruct it physically. So what we did is we took CT scans of the cranium, and then we digitally reconstructed it.

The cranium had some interesting features, particularly in that the teeth had “some badger features,” Su explained. The name of the species, Siamogale melilutra, recognizes that, as in Latin, meles means badger and lutra means otter.

The reconstruction gave the researchers important information into how otters evolved, and shed light on the evolution of these animals’ teeth.

The giant otters had large bunodont, or round-cusped teeth. Comparing this specimen to modern and other prehistoric otters, Su and her team found that “these bunodont teeth actually arose at least four different times within the greater otter lineage.” This means the teeth were not inherited by different otter species, but emerged because of convergent evolution – meaning they ate similar things.

The large size of these ancient otters remains a puzzle to scientists, though. “A lot of times in modern carnivores, the large size is partly due to subduing prey, so their prey is bigger and the carnivores also get bigger,” Su said. But it’s likely these otters ate small creatures like mollusks, which would not explain why they had to be so large.

The findings were published in the Journal of Systematic Paleontology.

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