Otter with an unusually strong bite lived six million years ago

Spread the love
  • Experts studied the prehistoric otter’s fossilised skull using advanced imaging
  • They compared it to other otter species to work out the biting power of its jaws
  • The massive creature may have been a dominant predator in Southern China
  • Its bite would have allowed it to crush mollusc shells and the bones of animals

Tim Collins For Mailonline

and
Press Association

Tarka the otter had a formidable relative that was a top predator six million years ago, scientists have discovered.

Siamogale melilutra was the size of a wolf and weighed about 110 pounds (50kg).

It also had an unusually powerful bite, which would have allowed it to crush mollusc shells or the bones of birds and small mammals. 

Tarka the otter had a formidable relative that was a top predator six million years ago, scientists have discovered. Siamogale melilutra was the size of a wolf, weighed about 110 pounds (50kg) and had a powerful bite (artist's impression)

Tarka the otter had a formidable relative that was a top predator six million years ago, scientists have discovered. Siamogale melilutra was the size of a wolf, weighed about 110 pounds (50kg) and had a powerful bite (artist's impression)

Tarka the otter had a formidable relative that was a top predator six million years ago, scientists have discovered. Siamogale melilutra was the size of a wolf, weighed about 110 pounds (50kg) and had a powerful bite (artist’s impression)

THE FINDINGS

Researchers carried out CT scans of the otter’s skull and those of ten of its modern relatives.

From the scans they created 3D virtual computer models which revealed a relationship between jaw stiffness and animals size.

The research showed that S. melilutra had jaws six times sturdier than expected.

Paired with the creature’s size, the powerful jaws would have made it an impressive hunter.

Researchers from the University of Buffalo studied the prehistoric otter’s fossilised skull.

The massive otter may have been a dominant predator where it lived in Shuitangba, southern China.  

Scans revealed a combination of otter-like and badger-like cranial and dental feature.

Because of this, the species was given the name ‘melilutra,’ derived from the Latin meles, for badger and lutra, for otter.

Dr Jack Tseng, who led the study, said: ‘We started our study with the idea that this otter was just a larger version of a sea otter or an African clawless otter in terms of chewing ability, that it would just be able to eat much larger things. 

‘That’s not what we found. 

‘We don’t know for sure, but we think that this otter was more of a top predator than living species of otters are. 

‘Our findings imply that Siamogale could crush much harder and larger prey than any living otter can.’

The researchers carried out computed tomography (CT) scans of the otter’s skull and those of ten of its modern relatives to see how they compared. 

From the scans they created 3D virtual computer models which revealed a relationship between jaw stiffness and animals size.

When the researchers ran the model to calculate the otter’s biting force, they found the animal had much firmer jaw bones than expected.

The research showed that S. melilutra had jaws six times sturdier than they anticipated.

This stiffness would have given the otter a surprisingly strong bite, even for its size. 

Digital 3D reconstructions show the skulls, including the jaws, of the roughly 15 pound (7 kg) common otter Lutra lutra (left), and the roughly 110-pound (50 kg) Siamogale melilutra

Digital 3D reconstructions show the skulls, including the jaws, of the roughly 15 pound (7 kg) common otter Lutra lutra (left), and the roughly 110-pound (50 kg) Siamogale melilutra

Digital 3D reconstructions show the skulls, including the jaws, of the roughly 15 pound (7 kg) common otter Lutra lutra (left), and the roughly 110-pound (50 kg) Siamogale melilutra

Heat maps show the location of weak spots (red and white) on the jaws of various otter species in biting simulations. The jaw of Siamogale melilutra, the giant prehistoric otter, (upper right-hand corner) has few weaknesses.

Heat maps show the location of weak spots (red and white) on the jaws of various otter species in biting simulations. The jaw of Siamogale melilutra, the giant prehistoric otter, (upper right-hand corner) has few weaknesses.

Heat maps show the location of weak spots (red and white) on the jaws of various otter species in biting simulations. The jaw of Siamogale melilutra, the giant prehistoric otter, (upper right-hand corner) has few weaknesses.

Paired with the creature’s size, the powerful jaws would have made it an impressive hunter. 

Co-author Dr Denise Su, from the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, US, described the otter’s habitat.

She said: ‘At the time that the otter lived, the area where its remains were found included a swamp or a shallow lake surrounded by evergreen forest or dense woodland.

‘There was a diverse aquatic fauna at Shuitangba, including fish, crab, molluscs, turtles and frogs, as well as many different species of water birds, all of which could have been potential prey for S. melilutra.’

Previously the only examples were isolated teeth recovered from Thailand until paleontologist found more fossilised remains at Shuitangba in the Yunnan Province, Southwestern China which were first reported early this year. 

That study used scans to reveal a complete cranium, mandible, dentition and various skeletal elements shedding light on the evolution of the little known fossil genus of the otter family.  

The full findings of the study were published in in the Nature journal Scientific Reports.

Paired with the creature's size, the powerful jaws would have made it an impressive hunter. This image shows another angle of comparison between the common otter and its ancient relative 

Paired with the creature's size, the powerful jaws would have made it an impressive hunter. This image shows another angle of comparison between the common otter and its ancient relative 

Paired with the creature’s size, the powerful jaws would have made it an impressive hunter. This image shows another angle of comparison between the common otter and its ancient relative 

Its unusually powerful bite would have allowed it to crush mollusc shells or the bones of birds and small mammals. This image shows a closeup of the digital reconstruction of the creature used in the study

Its unusually powerful bite would have allowed it to crush mollusc shells or the bones of birds and small mammals. This image shows a closeup of the digital reconstruction of the creature used in the study

Its unusually powerful bite would have allowed it to crush mollusc shells or the bones of birds and small mammals. This image shows a closeup of the digital reconstruction of the creature used in the study