Published: Wed, January 25, 2017
Research | By Kayla Price

Scientists Discover Prehistoric Giant Otter Species In China

Scientists Discover Prehistoric Giant Otter Species In China

Around 6.2 million years ago a big and strong otter species roamed around China's swamps. This discovery was made in the Yunnan Province, Southwestern China, by an worldwide team conducting groundbreaking research into the evolution of a little known fossil genus of the otter family.

The otter family dates back over 18 million years, but not much is known about these semi-aquatic creatures owing to the poor fossil record.

The fossilized skull was nearly complete, but had been flattened to an inch and a half thick, NPR reports. Denise Su, a curator and head of paleobotany and paleoecology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, said in a news release.

The research team found a well-preserved cranium of this new species in an open lignite mine in 2010.

Dr Su added: "The bones were so delicate that we could not physically restore the cranium".

Paleontologists working in China have uncovered the fossilized remains of a previously unknown species of ancient otter.

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"I think it used its powerful jaws to crush hard clams for food, somewhat like modern sea otters, although the latter use stone tools to smash shells", Xiaoming Wang, the head of vertebrate paleontology at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, told Reuters.

The CT restoration revealed a combination of otter-like and badger-like features, giving way to the species name "melilutra", which combines the Latin names for badger (meles) and otter (lutra).

These hulking otters of yore would have fed on large shellfish, crushed between their powerful jaws. They recently published their findings in the Journal of Systematic Palaeontology. "Instead, we CT-scanned the specimen and virtually reconstructed it in a computer", explained Dr. Su.

The reconstruction gave the researchers important information into how otters evolved, and shed light on the evolution of these animals' teeth. Giant otters, they said, possessed large bunodont, or round-cusped, teeth, and researchers were unsure if these teeth had been inherited from a common ancestor or if they were the result of convergent evolution. Dr. Xioming Wang, the lead scientists, and writer shares that the existence of rounded teeth appeared "three-times over the evolutionary history of otters".

Despite its large size, the S. melilutra is not the largest otter that researchers have so far discovered. The otters ate smaller mollusks so the team isn't sure why they were so large.

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