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Ethiopia: News – in Ethiopia Scientists Identify Fossil Otter the Size of a Lion


Addis Abeba — Scientists have identified a new species of long-extinct otter in Ethiopia that was the size of a modern lion. Weighing an estimated 200 kilograms, or 440 pounds, it is the largest otter ever described; it would have rubbed elbows, and possibly competed for food, with our much smaller ancestors when it lived alongside them 3.5 million to 2.5 million years ago. A paper describing the animal just appeared in the French scientific journal Comptes Rendus Palevol.

“The peculiar thing, in addition to its massive size, is that [isotopes] in its teeth suggest it was not aquatic, like all modern otters,” said study coauthor Kevin Uno, a geochemist at the Columbia Climate School’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “We found it had a diet of terrestrial animals, also differing from modern otters.”

Current otters weigh 4 to13 pounds for the Asian small-clawed otter, up to about 70 pounds for the South American giant otter and 100 pounds for the North Pacific sea otter. Several giant otters are known to have populated Eurasia and Africa from about 6 million to 2 million years ago. Among these, the extinct genus Enhydriodon is the best known because its remains, although fragmentary, have been found in many locales, particularly in eastern Africa. The newly described species has been named Enhydriodon omoensis, after southwestern Ethiopia’s Lower Omo Valley, where it was uncovered.

The fossils were discovered by several international excavation teams over the years. The authors of the new study, led by Camille Grohé of the University of Poitiers, based their body mass estimates on the dimensions of the animals’ teeth and femur.

Traditionally, otters of the genus Enhydriodon have been considered semi-aquatic, feeding on mollusks, turtles, crocodiles and catfish, all common in African freshwater environments. Uno tested this idea by analyzing stable isotopes of oxygen and carbon in the tooth enamel of Enhydriodonomoensis.