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This massive extinct otter may have had a bone-crushing bite

Crunching through shells would have been no problem for this giant otter

An artist’s rendering of this massive, prehistoric otter tearing into a snack with its powerful jaws.
An artist’s rendering of this massive, prehistoric otter tearing into a snack with its powerful jaws.
Artwork by Mauricio Anton

The scientific term for crunching hard-shelled creatures to death in your teeth before swallowing them is called “oral-crushing durophagy” — and a massive, extinct otter called Siamogale melilutra may have been a champion at it.

The giant otter was the size of a small human, weighing in at more than 110 pounds when it roamed southwest China six million years ago, National Geographic reports. But don’t imagine that this was a cuddly fuzzball: this ancient otter’s bite, described Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports, was probably more powerful than that of any otter species alive.

3D reconstructions of otter jaws: the Eurasian river otter on the left, and Siamogale melilutra on the right.
Image by Credit: Z. Jack Tseng

Cute creatures are chronically underestimated — and to underestimate an otter would certainly be a mistake. Sea otters crush tough prey with rocks on their own bellies and laugh at the spiky defenses of sea urchins. (Still not convinced? A pregnant sea otter crawled onto on a rock outside the Monterey Bay Aquarium last year and delivered a pup by yanking it out of herself.) Cape clawless otters in Africa eschew tools entirely; they crunch through crab shells with only their teeth. When the crabs are especially large, these otters roll over on their backs to catch dropped food on their tummies — fierce, furry, and practical.

The ancient Siamogale may have been the fiercest otter yet: by comparing 3D models of its jaw to those of other otters, scientists estimate that its bones were six times tougher than they should have been based on today’s species. We don’t know exactly what it ate, but turtles, frogs, fish, and shellfish were all on the menu back then. And if the scientists are right, not much could have stood in this oral-crushing durophage’s bone-snapping, shell-crunching way.