This giant living fossil is definitely not your average salamander.
The length of the giant Chinese salamander can reach almost 2 meters (6 ft). Image credit: Petr Hamerník
The Chinese giant salamander (Andrias davidianus) is one of the largest and most unique species of salamanders in the world. Native to central and eastern China, this species can grow up to 1.8 meters (almost 6 ft) in length and weigh almost 60 kg (130 lb), making it the largest extant amphibian on the planet.
Historically, Chinese giant salamanders were believed to be a single species, but recent research differentiated three distinct species from southern, central and eastern China. One of the newly named species, Andrias sligoi, or the South China giant salamander, is thought to be the biggest of the three, reaching a length of nearly 2 meters.
Chinese giant salamanders, unlike many other amphibians, have a long lifespan with some living longer than the average human. They can live up to 30 years in the wild and even up to 60 years in captivity. The lifespan of wild and captive Chinese giant salamanders differs due to the conditions they face. While wild salamanders fend for themselves, where they may get sick and die and also face many more threats, captive salamanders benefit from medical care and protection from predators.
In the wild, these enormous amphibians can be found in various habitats, including rivers, lakes, and caves. They are also known to live in subterranean rivers. In certain regions of China, only underground populations still exist because the aboveground populations in rivers and lakes are more susceptible to being over-fished for their eggs.
The Chinese giant salamander is a critically endangered species and is considered one of the world’s most threatened amphibians. This is due to habitat loss and degradation, as well as over-exploitation for traditional Chinese medicine and food. In recent years, there has been a decline in the wild population, and the species is now estimated to be at a very low level.
On the other hand, 2.6 million Chinese giant salamanders were kept in farms in 2011 in Shaanxi alone, far surpassing the entire countrywide wild population estimated at less than 50,000 individuals. And the fact that farms have struggled to produce second-generation captive-bred offspring further dwindles their numbers in the wild.
Chinese giant salamanders (Andrias davidianus) for sale in a restaurant in Hongqiao, Wenzhou, Zhejiang, China. The price was 130 USD/0.5 kg. Image credit: Micromesistius
The species is also of special concern for its unique biology and evolutionary history. Despite being a fully aquatic animal, the Chinese giant salamander has a single lung that is primarily utilized for maintaining buoyancy in the water. However, it can also be used for breathing as the species has been observed to come to the water’s surface to inhale air in large quantities. This makes the animal one of the few species of salamanders that can breathe through both its skin and lungs, allowing it to thrive in both aquatic and terrestrial environments.
The Chinese giant salamander has tiny, nearly invisible eyes atop its head, resulting in poor vision. Yet, it compensates for this with a lateral line, which helps it locate fish in water. These animals produce sounds that resemble a baby’s cry, earning them the ironic (and inaccurate) nickname “baby fish.”
Additionally, the Chinese giant salamander is considered a “living fossil” and has remained largely unchanged for millions of years, making it an important species for understanding the evolution of amphibians.
To protect the species, conservation efforts are underway. In China, the government has established protected areas and has banned the harvest and sale of wild individuals. Additionally, breeding and release programs have been initiated to help increase the population in the wild.
Let’s hope these efforts will be successful.