Enormous, Man-Sized Chinese Salamander May Be World's Biggest Amphibian

The Chinese giant salamander—previously thought to be a single species—is actually made up of three distinct lineages, research suggests. And one of these is likely to be the world's largest amphibian.

Scientists from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) examined 17 historical specimens as well as tissue samples from wild animals, finding that there was enough genetic difference between groups living in different river systems and mountain ranges across China, that they should be described as three separate species, according to a study published in the journal Ecology & Evolution.

"Our analysis reveals that Chinese giant salamander species diverged between 3.1 and 2.4 million years ago," Samuel Turvey, lead author of the study from ZSL's Institute of Zoology, said in a statement. "These dates correspond to a period of mountain formation in China as the Tibetan Plateau rose rapidly, which could have isolated giant salamander populations and led to the evolution of distinct species in different landscapes."

Until now, all Chinese salamanders were thought to represent the species Andrias davidianus. However, Turvey and his team have now identified two other species: Andrias sligoi from southern China and a third that has yet to be named. Turvey says it's "highly likely" that there are also other, as-yet-unnamed species of giant salamanders elsewhere across China.

Andrias sligoi, or the South China giant salamander, is the largest of the three, capable of growing up to two meters in length. Because Chinese giant salamanders were already considered the largest amphibians in the world, the newly identified lineage now lays claim to the title, the researchers say.

In the 1920s, scientists had proposed the idea that Andrias sligoi was a separate species based on an unusual specimen that was living at London Zoo. At the time, the idea was dismissed, but it has now been confirmed by the latest results, with the ZSL team using the preserved body of this specimen—which is now kept at the Natural History Museum in London—to describe the new species.

"The largest recorded giant salamander individual is a 1.8-meter [5.9-feet] long animal that was caught in southern China in the 1920s," Turvey told Newsweek. "Historically this animal has just been interpreted as a specimen of Andrias davidianus. However, it is actually potentially an individual of A. sligoi rather than A. davidianus, based on geographical location, making it incredible that only now are we recognising the true identity of the world's largest amphibian."

Chinese giant salamanders were once common across a huge area of central, eastern, and southern China. However, the animals have suffered dramatic declines in recent times, in large part because they are in high demand as a luxury food product in the country. Now, they are listed as "critically endangered" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and the salamanders are on the edge of extinction in the wild, according to Turvey.

"Recent human movement of salamanders around China has taken place on a massive scale, due to the development of a widespread farming industry that supplies an emerging luxury food market," Turvey said. "The farming industry originated in Shaanxi Province, central China, and farmed stocks mainly consist of the central Chinese species Andrias davidianus."

"Individuals of this particular species have escaped from farms and have also been deliberately released into rivers as part of government-supported conservation releases—so that salamanders caught from the wild across China are now likely to represent these farmed animals, rather than the different species which used to occur locally," he said. "The original local populations have been almost completely wiped out, largely due to poaching to supplement farm stocks, and with additional risks from possible hybridization, competition, and disease resulting from farm escapes and releases."

The researchers say that the latest study casts new light on Chinese giant salamanders at a time when radical conservation efforts are needed.

"These findings come at a time where urgent interventions are required to save Chinese giant salamanders in the wild," Melissa Marr, from the Natural History Museum London, said in a statement. "Our results indicate that tailored conservation measures should be put in place that preserve the genetic integrity of each distinct species."

Recognizing that the term Chinese giant salamanders actually applies to multiple species has huge implications for conservation, the researchers say.

"Recognizing that Chinese giant salamanders actually consist of multiple species has huge implications for conservation," Turvey said. "Whilst giant salamanders still exist in their millions in farms, we now know that these mainly represent only one of the species found across China—Andrias davidianus—with the other species now largely eliminated from the wild. Each distinct species requires targeted and separate conservation management, both to locate any surviving wild populations and hopefully to establish species-specific conservation breeding programmes."

This article was updated with additional comments from Samuel Turvey.

Chinese giant salamander
New giant salamander species, Andrias sligoi. ZSL