Giant Prehistoric Otter Found—but Why So Big?

The size of a wolf, the bite of a badger
By Newser Editors,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 24, 2017 2:40 PM CST

Picture an otter, then envision it ballooning to twice—or triple, or quadruple—its size until it's a 110-pound creature: It's not a journey into the imagination, but to yesteryear. An international team of scientists has announced news of the largest otter ever found, one that lived some 6.2 million years ago and has been given the name Siamogale melilutra, the latter word a mash-up of the Latin words for "badger" and "otter." The discovery was made after studying an "incredibly complete," though completely flattened fossilized cranium found in a mine in China's Yunnan Province, researcher Denise Su explains in a press release. She says the bones were in such fragile condition that a physical reconstruction wasn't possible—so the team relied on CT scans and virtually reconstructed it instead.

The end result revealed a head with badger-like dental characteristics, says Su, hence the animal's name. The researchers believe the creature was a mollusk-eater, which raises a, well, big question. "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 tells NPR. An otter wouldn't need to be wolf-sized—as Siamogale melilutra was, clocking in at about twice the size of the South American giant river otter—to eat mollusks. Or would it? Lead researcher Xiaoming Wang speculates that perhaps these ancient otters hadn't learned how to use rocks, as modern otters do, to open mollusks. It's possible they needed to "apply brute strength" from their large jaws "to crush hard shells," he tells Live Science. (More discoveries stories.)

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