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Otters have ancestors who were the size of wolves and roamed Earth six million years ago, scientists have discovered.

A far cry from the cute-looking animals shared on social media today, Siamogale melilutra weighed about 50kg and had an unusually powerful bite – allowing it to crush bird bones and small mammals.

The University of Buffalo’s Dr Jack Tseng, who led a study of the prehistoric otter’s fossilised skull, said: “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.”

Today's otters are much smaller compared to their ancient ancestors

Image: Today’s otters are much smaller compared to their ancient ancestors

The scientists compared computed tomography (CT) scans on the skulls of the ancestor specimen and 10 of its modern relatives.

They then created 3D computer models which showed how jaw stiffness correlated with the animals’ size.

The study, published in the Scientific Reports journal, showed the ancient animal’s jaw was six times sturdier than expected.

The experts said the powerful jaws combined with its size would have made it a formidable hunter.

The experts said the ancient animal's jaw was six times sturdier

Image: The experts said the ancient animal’s jaw was six times sturdier

Co-author Dr Denise Su, of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, said the Siamogale melilutra lived in a swamp-like habitat in Shuitangba, southern China.

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 Siamogale melilutra.”

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