There are only three living species of giant salamander in the family Cryptobranchidae, the Chinese giant salamander, the Japanese giant salamander, and the American hellbender. Ancestors of the Cryptobranchidae diverged from all other amphibians over 170 million years ago during the Jurassic Period, which makes this family of amphibians one of the longest unbroken lineages present amongst the modern species assemblages of caecilians, salamanders, frogs and toads. The genus Andrias is represented by only two extant species, the Chinese and Japanese giant salamanders.
Cryptobranchids are believed to be derived from hynobiid-like amphibians (relatively primitive small- to medium-sized salamanders found primarily in Asia) due to the retention of larval characters into adulthood (a process called “neoteny”). The fossil record of cryptobranchid salamanders begins with Cryptobranchus saskatchewanensis from the Upper Paleocene to the Lower Eocene (52-58 million years ago), Cryptobranchus scheuchzeri from the Middle Oligocene to the Upper Pliocene in Europe (2-33 million years ago), and Cryptobranchus matthewi from the middle Miocene to the Miocene-Pliocene boundary (14-21 million years ago). The American hellbender Cryptobranchus alleganiensis is also known from the Pleistocene of North America (up to 1.8 million years ago), and the Japanese giant salamander Andrias japonicus is known from the Pleistocene of Asia (1.8 million years ago).
The breeding season for Chinese giant salamanders appears to occur between August and September. Mating behaviour described for Japanese giant salamanders is probably similar for the Chinese giant salamander. Females lay a string of approximately 500 eggs (each measuring on average 22 mm by 19.2 mm, with an embryo diameter of 8-9 mm) in an underwater burrow or “breeding cavity” that is occupied by a male. The occupying male will aggressively guard this breeding cavity against any intruders. Females may enter the cavity and leave it directly after spawning. Eggs are fertilised externally and then guarded by the male until they hatch after 50-60 days.
Chinese giant salamander larvae resemble the adults in shape, and develop in streams. They are only 30 mm in length upon hatching, and start eating after about 30 days. The external gills of the larvae start to reduce in size when they measure 200-250 mm in length, although adults never fully lose two of their gill branches. The larvae have longer gills than those of Japanese giant salamander, their fingers and toes are more pointed, and they are darker in colour. Chinese giant salamanders are very long-lived, reaching ages of more than 52 years in captivity, and are thought to reach sexual maturity at around 15 years.
The Chinese giant salamander is generally nocturnal, although they become more diurnal during the breeding season. During the day, the species will usually be found in dark hiding places, venturing out only to stalk their prey and feed. They feed on a wide variety of prey items, such as fish, worms, insect larvae, anurans (frogs and toads) and their tadpoles, crustaceans, molluscs, aquatic reptiles and small mammals. Chinese giant salamanders are also known to eat carrion, their own shed skin and eggs, and may also exhibit cannibalistic behaviour. However, usually the majority of the adult’s diet will simply consist of crustaceans and fish.
Chinese giant salamander teeth are small but numerous. The bite is very powerful and provides a strong grip on their prey. The fusion point of the upper and lower jaw of this species is flexible, with large bundles of elastic cartilage that allow the gape of the mouth to reach 40°. The feeding method employed in this species is known as asymmetrical buccal suction, where the lower jaw is depressed quickly and nearby prey items are sucked into the mouth.
They have very small eyes positioned far back on the sides of their head that provide them with poor vision – both eyes cannot focus on the same object at the same time. They therefore rely heavily of smell and touch to find their prey.
Chinese giant salamanders possess lungs, though which they are able to breathe inefficiently, but they primarily take up oxygen from the water through their skin. As their larval gills become reduced, adults develop a conspicuous fold of skin along their flanks to increase the surface area for oxygen uptake. Their large size, lack of gills and inefficient lungs confine this species to flowing water.
The Japanese giant salamander (Andrias japonicus)
The hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis)
Over-exploitation for food, as well as habitat loss, water pollution, and interbreeding with escaped farmed salamanders.
The Chinese giant salamander is widespread in central, south-western and southern China, although its range is now very fragmented. It occurs from 100–1,500 m above sea level in the mountain stream tributaries of the Pearl, Yellow and Yangtze Rivers. The species ranges from Qinghai and Sichuan to Guangxi, Guangdong and Jiangsu provinces. The population in Taiwan has probably been introduced from mainland China, likely due to animals escaping from farms.
Commercial over-exploitation for human consumption is the main threat to the Chinese giant salamander. They are considered to be both a luxury food item and an important source of traditional medicines in China. A factor that renders the Chinese giant salamander particularly vulnerable to hunting is that they are easy to catch – they hide in rock crevasses and may be easily found and hooked out of their hiding place. They remain a lucrative option for hunters, who can sell the flesh for around US$100 per kg (or £30 per lb). Although there is commercial farming and breeding of this species, the vast majority of Chinese giant salamanders being traded are believed to originate from the wild and their harvesting is neither regulated nor managed. In addition, although captured Chinese giant salamanders breed well in captivity, there has been no success so far in breeding second generations, and so the captive population is unsustainable and requires the capture of more animals from the wild.
This species has also suffered from habitat destruction, for example from the construction of dams which convert their free-flowing stream habitats into standing water or dry them up completely. Habitat degradation is also of grave concern to this species, especially factors such as water pollution from mining activity and farming throughout its range. Other threats to the Chinese giant salamander’s habitat includes deforestation around the streams inhabited by this species. This exacerbates soil erosion and causes increased runoff and siltation of the streams, reducing water quality and making it difficult for this species to get enough oxygen through its skin.
The Chinese giant salamander is listed on Appendix I of CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). Appendix I includes species threatened with extinction, and trade in specimens of these species is permitted only in exceptional circumstances. Unfortunately, although CITES regulates international trade in the species, it has no jurisdiction over the domestic trade within China which constitutes the primary market. It is also listed as a Class II State Major Protected Wildlife Species in China.
This species occurs, or at least used to occur, in many nature reserves within its range, and some nature reserves even use the Chinese giant salamander as their main conservation target, such as Zhangjiajie Giant Salamander Nature Reserve. There are currently six “Giant Salamander Reserves” in China: Lushi, Qingyaoshan, Youyang, Taibai, Yongshun, and Zhangjiajie. Unfortunately, all of these reserves are adversely affected by a combination of negative factors such as shortage of funding and personnel, lacking a conservation action plan, poaching, uncertain reserve status, and a lack of protection for salamander habitat.
In 1999 a huge 99,975 hectare area of Mount Wuyi, China was designated as a World Heritage Site, dedicated to conserving this biodiverse region, including the habitat of the Chinese giant salamander. The surrounding area has a growing population and there are concerns that development around the reserve and increased tourist activity within the reserve will place pressure on Mount Wuyi’s rich natural resources.
Captive ranching of animals has achieved some success at reducing the pressure on the dwindling reserves of wild salamanders, but these projects are mainly to meet the market demand. It is likely that these animals are being bred in captivity, although this may involve the use of artificial hormones and breeding it not carried out in conjunction with any re-introduction purposes for conservation purposes. In addition, there have been major issues with captive animals escaping and both breeding with and spreading disease among the wild population.
This project supports in-country EDGE Fellows to help conserve relevant EDGE species
1. Increase knowledge of wild salamander distribution, population and ecology;
2. Improve disease diagnostic and research capacity;
3. Develop a conservation genetics database;
4. Develop a conservation breeding centre
This project, led by ZSL and funded by the UK government’s Darwin Initiative, Ocean Park Conservation Foundation, Hong Kong and the US Fish and Wildlife Amphibians in Decline fund, aims to provide sound scientific evidence to conserve the Chinese giant salamander (CGS) and its habitat. The CGS is a national treasure of China and can be regarded as the “freshwater panda”. However, wild CGS populations have experienced 80% declines since the 1950s and this species is currently listed as ‘Critically Endangered’ by the IUCN.
GWild will wear ONLY 12 outfits in 12 months for 12 threatened animals to fundraise for their conservation.
Keen on wildlife conservation and aim to become the conservation leader in China
My name is Lv Jingcai, I come from China and I am focusing on amphibians and reptiles.
Working to protect the Chinese giant salamander.
I am focusing on the conservation genetics of wild Chinese giant salamander.
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