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 habitat of the Chinese giant salamander consists of rocky, mountain streams and lakes with clear, fast-running water. The species is usually found in forested areas at moderate altitudes, below 1500 m above sea level and especially between 300 and 800 m. Chinese giant salamanders occupy underwater hollows and cavities, and spend their whole lives in water.
No accurate population estimate is currently available, although it is known that this species was once reasonably common but has declined catastrophically over the last thirty years, principally due to over-exploitation for the food market since at least the 1960s because its meat is considered to be a delicacy in China. It is now very rare, with few known surviving populations.
The Chinese giant salamander is thought to be in decline by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. This decline is believed to be severe according to the reports of a number of recent population assessments for this species. Not only have populations become smaller and more fragmented, the individuals captured are smaller than they used to be, most probably as a result of over-collecting of large individuals. Additionally, the generation length is estimated to be 15 years, making population recovery much slower than for many other amphibian species.
From catch rates of Chinese giant salamanders it is clear that there has been a very serious decline in their numbers. In the 1960s, more than 15,000 kg of Chinese giant salamander meat was harvested each year from one single Prefecture in Hunan province. In the 1970s, only around 2,500 to 3,000 kg could be harvested each year and this figure has been declining sharply ever since.
The Chinese giant salamander is listed as Critically Endangered in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species because of an observed drastic population decline, estimated to be more than 80% over the last three generations (since the 1960s), due to over-exploitation.
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.
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.
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.
It is of paramount importance to manage and effectively protect salamander populations and their habitat in the wild. This will necessitate education programmes, community conservation initiatives and active conservation action plans throughout the viable habitat of the Chinese giant salamander.
In addition to conserving native habitat for this species, the IUCN Technical Guidelines for the Management of Ex situ Populations, part of the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, recommend that all Critically Endangered species should have an ex situ population managed to guard against the extinction of the species. An ex situ population is ideally a breeding colony of a species maintained outside of its natural habitat, giving rise to individuals from that species that are sheltered from problems associated with their situation in the wild. This can be located in the within the species’ range or in another country that has the facilities to support a captive breeding programme for that species. Breeding farms have been established in Hunan, Shaanxi, Jiangxi and other provinces since the early 1970s to supply the commercial trade in this species. However, many farms rely on fresh supplies of wild caught individuals and is doubtful if commercial farming will be able to alleviate the pressure on natural populations. There has been considerable success captive breeding its close relative the Japanese giant salamander for conservation purposes. Concerted research and development efforts in the area of captive breeding of this species are required to insure against total extinction of wild populations.
It would also be beneficial to organise and environmental education campaign to encourage pride in this species as a symbol of China’s remarkable biodiversity. This could also be used to identify alternative livelihoods for people who rely partially on hunting Chinese giant salamanders to supplement their income. The establishment of a Chinese giant salamander education centre in an area of this species’ range, with a captive breeding facility to provide individuals for a reintroduction programme, could provide a much-needed focus for active conservation and monitoring of this species.
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.