Ancient giant otter unearthed in China

illustration of giant otters

OUT OF THE SWAMP  Six million years ago, giant otters (illustrated above eating a clam and walking) may have lived in the lush swamps of what is now China, and coexisted with tapir (one illustrated in background).

Art by Mauricio Antón

Fossils of a giant otter have emerged from an open-pit mine in China. The crushed cranium, jaw bone and partial skeletons of at least three animals belong to an extinct species of otter that lived about 6.2 million years ago, scientists report January 23 in the Journal of Systematic Palaeontology.

At roughly the size of a Rottweiler, the 50-kilogram otter would have far outclassed today’s giant otter, a river-dwelling South American mammal weighing about 34 kilograms. Scientists named the new species Siamogale melilutra for its unusual mix of badger and otter features. (Melilutra is a mash-up of the Latin words for both creatures.) Several dental features of S. melilutra resemble those of badgers, but other aspects of the teeth and skull make it clearly an otter, researchers concluded after CT scanning and reconstructing the fossil skull. Based on fossils found near the site, scientists believe that the otter probably lived in the shallow lake of a warm, humid swamp.

Meghan Rosen is a staff writer who reports on the life sciences for Science News. She earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology with an emphasis in biotechnology from the University of California, Davis, and later graduated from the science communication program at UC Santa Cruz.

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