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Ancient otter of unusual size 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).

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Fossils of a giant otter have emerged from the depths of an open-pit mine in China.

The crushed cranium, jaw bone and partial skeletons of at least three animals belong to a now-extinct species of otter that lived some 6.2 million years ago, scientists report January 23 in the Journal of Systematic Palaeontology.

At roughly 50 kilograms in weight, the otter would have outclassed today’s giant otter, a river-dwelling South American mammal weighing in at around 34 kilograms. Scientists named the new species Siamogale melilutra, a nod to its unusual mix of badger and otter features. Melilutra is a mash-up of the Latin words for both creatures.

Badgers and otters both belong to a group of carnivorous animals called Mustelidae, but scientists have had trouble figuring out where to place extinct members in the mammalian family tree. (European badgers and modern otters share similar-looking teeth and skulls.) Still, Siamogale melilutra, however badgerlike, is indeed an otter, researchers concluded after CT scanning, reconstructing and analyzing the fossil skull. 

Based on plant and animal fossils found near the collection site, scientists believe that the ancient otter probably lived in the shallow lake of a warm and humid swamp, lush with broad-leaved evergreens and grasses.

Animals,, Ecology

How desert ants navigate walking backward

By Helen Thompson 6:14pm, January 19, 2017
Desert ants appear to use a combination of visual memory and celestial cues to make it back to the nest walking butt-first, researchers find.
Paleontology,, Animals,, Evolution

Ancient oddball invertebrate finds its place on the tree of life

By Cassie Martin 2:30pm, January 11, 2017
Ancient marine invertebrates called hyoliths may be more closely related to modern horseshoe worms than mollusks, a fossil analysis finds.
Earth,, Climate

Antarctica’s Larsen C ice shelf nears breaking point

By Thomas Sumner 3:32pm, January 9, 2017
A fast-growing crack in Antarctica’s Larsen C ice shelf could soon break off a 5,000-square-kilometer hunk of ice into the ocean.
Biophysics

Baby starfish whip up whirlpools to snag a meal

By Emily Conover 12:00pm, December 23, 2016
Starfish larvae use hairlike cilia to stir up water whorls and suck prey in close.
Clinical Trials,, Health

Ebola vaccine proves effective, final trial results show

By Meghan Rosen 6:30pm, December 22, 2016
The Ebola vaccine rVSV-ZEBOV proved effective at stopping the spread of the virus in a clinical trial in West Africa.
Animals,, Genetics,, Evolution

Genome clues help explain the strange life of seahorses

By Cassie Martin 4:30pm, December 14, 2016
Researchers have decoded the genetic instruction manual of a seahorse (Hippocampus comes) and found clues to its nearly 104-million-year evolutionary history.
Planetary Science,, Chemistry

First signs of boron on Mars hint at past groundwater, habitability

By Thomas Sumner 6:34pm, December 13, 2016
The Curiosity rover has found the first signs of boron on Mars, which could hint at past habitable groundwater.
Cells,, Health,, Microbiology

Cell biologists learn how Zika kills brain cells, devise schemes to stop it

By Tina Hesman Saey 4:17pm, December 13, 2016
Cell biologists are learning more about how the Zika virus disrupts brain cells to cause microcephaly. Meanwhile, several strategies to combat the virus show preliminary promise.
Robotics

Caterpillar robot uses squishy, 3-D printed legs to inch and crawl

By Meghan Rosen 2:23pm, December 13, 2016
Squishy, 3-D printed legs help a caterpillar robot switch between inching and crawling, and offer sensory info about the world.
Health

Microcephaly cases surge in Colombia following rise in Zika infections

By Meghan Rosen 5:18pm, December 9, 2016
More than 400 cases of microcephaly have been reported in Colombia this year, months after Zika virus infections peaked in the country.
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