Ancient Wolf-Size Otter Had Bizarrely Strong Bite

2017-11-09T17:34:37+00:00 November 9, 2017|
(Click to enlarge). An artist's rendering of Siamogale meliutra, the  giant otter that lived in the swamps of southwestern China six million year ago. (Illustration by Mauricio Anton).

(Click to enlarge). An artist’s rendering of Siamogale meliutra, the giant otter that lived in the swamps of southwestern China six million year ago. (Illustration by Mauricio Anton).

Six million years ago, a hundred-pound otter was on the prowl somewhere in the swampy wetlands of what’s now southwestern China.

(From National Geographic / by Jason G. Goldman) — Unlike today’s playful sea otters, which use stones to smash open urchins off the Pacific coasts of North America and Asia, this ancient creature could have chomped right through mollusk shells with its powerful jaws.

Meet Siamogale melilutra, a prehistoric otter ancestor that was unearthed in China’s Yunnan Province and first described earlier this year.

In a new study, researchers examined the animal’s mandible, or jawbone, and determined that it was probably an apex predator of the late Miocene, with strong jaws and teeth made for crushing that would have allowed it to consume a wide range of prey.

“We still think it probably consumed mollusks, but at a level of capability that’s way beyond what we see in living otters,” says study leader Z. Jack Tseng of the SUNY University at Buffalo.

The discovery not only provides insight into the life of this ancient giant, but also offers clues to the behaviors of modern otters—including some species’ remarkable use of tools.

Today, otters generally fall into two groups: Molluscivores dine on hard-shelled invertebrates like crabs, clams, and urchins, while piscivores feast primarily on fish.

To better understand the feeding habits of Siamogale, Tseng and his team rounded up mandibles and skulls from ten of the 13 living otter species and created computerized 3-D models of their jaws, along with those of the fossil animal.

When muscles rotate the jaw, energy passes through the bone and into the teeth. Some of that energy naturally gets lost through friction and heat and, in the case of mandibles, to slight deformations in the shape of the bone itself.

More efficient chewing would therefore involve stiffer mandibles, which bend less as they bite, and biting efficiency can shed light on dietary preferences. (Also find out how sabertoothed cats killed prey despite their weak bites.)

Molluscivores, they reasoned, would have stiffer jaws than piscivores, because they must break through the hard exoskeletons of their prey. Instead, they found a simple linear relationship for all living otters, even after accounting for body size: The bigger the otter, the stiffer the jaw.

“That came as a surprise to us,” says Tseng, whose team reports their findings this week in the journal Scientific Reports.

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