Featured Image Credit: Mauricio Antón/Journla of Systematic Palaeontology
Recently scientists have discovered an otter that was prehistorically far from being otterly adorable.
Just a few short 6 million years ago, lived a giant otter that weighed well over 100 pounds… Gulp. Scientists discovered the potentially-new species in 2010 when they uncovered a well-preserved cranium in a lignite mine, but they have just recently published their findings in the Journal of Systematic Palaeontology.
Denise Su, the head of paleobotany and paleoecology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, clarified that the wolf-sized animal was likely “two to three times larger than any modern otter species.”
Luckily for researchers, the fossilized and fragile cranium was practically complete, however, it was flattened to about an inch and half thick. Su added, “The bones are pretty fragile, so we couldn’t reconstruct it physically, so what we did is took CT scans of the cranium, and then we digitally reconstructed it.”
The researchers noticed something quite interesting about the newly found otter species. According to Su, the oversized otter’s teeth had “some badger features, ” which they gave credit to in the naming process. In Latin meles means badger and lutra means otter, so the specimen was perfectly named Siamogale melilutra.
For many years, the dental evolution of the otter species has remained somewhat of a mystery. Did they inherit their teeth from a common ancestor or was convergent evolution at play?
Thanks to the giant otter’s completely preserved cranium, researchers now know that the animal had large, round-cusped (bunodont) teeth. According to Su, “These bunodont teeth actually arose four different times in the greater otter lineage.” Basically, this means that convergent evolution, or the species’ teeth evolved separately because they were eating similar things, was the culprit.
Looking back at 2009 when Su and her team first discovered the giant otter’s upper arm bone, she remembers thinking, “This looks like an otter but it’s huge… Is this really an otter?”
Learn more about the exciting discovery from Denise Su, Ph.D., in a video from the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.