Chinese Giant Salamander
(Andrias davidianus)
The Chinese giant salamander is the largest living species of amphibian, reaching a maximum length of 1.8 metres. It lives in cool, fast-flowing streams and mountain lakes and predominantly feeds on fish and crustaceans. The breeding season occurs between August and September when 500 eggs are laid in a burrow guarded by the male. This species is threatened by over-harvesting for the food trade, as well as the destruction and degradation of its habitat. It is now Critically Endangered, having undergone a massive population decline over the last 30 years.
Urgent Conservation Actions
Surveys to establish the location of viable populations; protection of habitat throughout this species’ range; community conservation and education initiatives.
Central, south-western and southern China.
The Chinese giant salamander is the largest of all living amphibian species, sometimes growing to more than 1 m in length. There are validated records of individuals reaching lengths of up to 1.8 m. It has even been reported in 1983 that a 3 metre long, 70kg salamander was purchased at a local market in the Sang Zhi Prefecture, Hunan Province. This puts the species in the same league as some of the giant prehistoric amphibians, such as Eryops from the Lower Permian Period 295 million years ago. Eryops reached a size of 1.5 to 2 m nose to tail, but itself was later dwarfed by species such as Metoposaurus from the Late Triassic Period (200-228 million years ago) which exceeded 3 m in length. The largest known amphibian was Koolasuchus, which occurred alongside Early Cretaceous dinosaurs in southern Australia. Koolasuchus was an astonishing 5 metres long – that’s around three times the length of an adult human!

Today there are only three species of giant salamander – the Chinese giant salamander, the Japanese giant salamander, and the more distantly related hellbender from the American mid-west.

The Chinese giant salamander also has its place in mythology. In one particular Asian myth, the salamander makes its home in fires; the hotter the better. Early travellers to China were shown garments which, or so they were told, had been woven of “wool” from the salamander and this cloth was completely unharmed by fire. The garments had actually been woven from asbestos.

In 1726 the Swiss physician Johann Jacob Scheuchzer described a fossil of a Chinese giant salamander and assumed that it was a fossil of a human being that survived the Great Flood, naming it Homo diluvii testis (“witness of the Great Flood”). The Teylers Museum in Haarlem (the Netherlands) bought the fossil in 1802, where it still is being exhibited. In 1812 the fossil was examined by the famous palaeontologist Georges Cuvier who recognised it as being a giant salamander and renamed the species Andrias scheuchzeri, honoring both Scheuchzer and his beliefs (Andrias means 'image of man'). The name of the genus Andrias was retained to describe the Chinese and Japanese giant salamander. The species was again renamed by Blanchard in 1871, providing the current scientific name of Andrias davidianus.
Associated Blog Posts
2nd Dec 13
Edge fellow Fang Yan shares news of an initiative to help the recovery of wild Chinese giant salamander populations. During 23rd September to 23rd Octobe...  Read

10th Oct 13
A team of experts from ZSL recently visited our Chinese giant salamander project in China. Head of ZSL's herpetology department Ben Tapley has written this b...  Read

5th Sep 13
This August we held a Chinese Giant Salamander event in Xi’an this was to raise publicity for the species as well as carry out questionnaires with local pa...  Read

12th Aug 13
by Becky Shu Chen (IoZ, ZSL) The Darwin Initiative Project entitled “A sustainable future for Chinese giant salamanders” includes a strong Communi...  Read

24th Jul 13
Following Lv Jingcai's recent blog about the Chinese giant salamander EDGE fellow Yan Fang has written a quick update from the project in China. In order ...  Read

22nd Jul 13
Guest Blog: EDGE Fellow Lv Jingcai talks about a recent workshop for the Chinese giant salamander held in China The field survey workshop of a sustai...  Read

2nd May 13
Zhou Feng's EDGE Fellowship project focuses on diagnosing pathogens that threaten the Chinese giant salamander. In her latest blog, she tell us about the dea...  Read

25th Mar 13
Meet Fang Yan and Lv Jingcai, two EDGE Fellows who will be researching the Chinese giant salamander (CGS) in their home country of China. Found in much of ce...  Read

17th Mar 13
The giant panda is loved by people globally. Its characteristic black and white coat and playful nature has made it a firm favourite with the general public ...  Read

10th Mar 13
Meet Shu Chen, one of our new EDGE Fellows working on the Chinese giant salamander in her native country of China. In this introductory blog, she describes ...  Read

6th Mar 13
My name is Zhou Feng and I come from Xi’an, Shaanxi Province, China. I am really looking forward to starting my EDGE Fellowship and helping to research and...  Read

7th Jun 12
Over the past month of May, Gabby Wild has been a busy bee. In conjunction with EDGE she launched her campaign to save the Chinese giant salamander, which is...  Read

17th May 11
Zhou Feng is an EDGE Fellow working on the Critically Endangered Chinese giant salamander – EDGE’s highest priority amphibian for conservation action.  ...  Read

8th Dec 10
Darren Naish is a fantastic advocate of everything to do with tetrapod zoology through his excellent blog.  From fossils to modern day creatures, ...  Read

Evolutionary Distinctiveness
Order: Caudata
Family: Cryptobranchidae

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 permanently aquatic Chinese giant salamander is heavily built, with a flat, broad head and a truncated snout. It has a wide mouth, small round eyes that lack eyelids, and small, rounded nostrils close to the edge of the upper lip at the corners of the snout. The species has a large tongue and possesses vomerine teeth (two small bumps found on the roof of the mouth or palate) in addition to a long arc of maxillary (or jaw) teeth.

The body, like the head, is quite flattened in appearance, with a broad, compressed tail almost 60% of the body length. The species has a series of costal grooves (found along the sides of the body in the region of the ribs), as well as a vertebral groove (running along the back) and a fold of skin present along the sides of the body from the back of the head to the tip of the tail. The skin is generally rough and porous with numerous wrinkles, folds and tubercles (small bumps). Individuals are dark brown, black or greenish in colour with irregularly blotched, marbled or and/or spotted patterning.

Total body length at adulthood is about 1 metre, although a classic publication on the Chinese salamander by M.L.Y. Chang in 1936 quotes a maximum length of 180 cm (1.8 metres). Individuals of 115 cm weigh over 11 kg. This makes the Chinese giant salamander the largest extant amphibian species in the world, both in terms of length and mass, although its close relative the Japanese giant salamander can also reach lengths of 1 m. However, due to wild harvesting of the Chinese giant salamander as a delicacy in Asia, most animals found today are considerably smaller.


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.

Associated Species

The Japanese giant salamander (Andrias japonicus)


The hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis)

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.
Factors leading to extinction

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.

Population Estimate
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.
Population Trend
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.  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.

Conservation Underway

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.

Conservation Proposed
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.
Associated EDGE Community members

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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Roelants, K., Gower, D. J., Wilkinson, M., Loader, S. P., Biju, S. D., Guillaume, K., Moiau, L. and Bossuyt, F. 2007. Global patterns of diversification in the history of modern amphibians. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104: 887-892.

Wang, P. 2000. Protection of the habitat of giant salamanders should be realized. Sichuan Journal of Zoology 19(3): 164.

Wang, X.-M., Zhang, K.-J., Wang, Z.-H., Ding, Y.-Z., Wu, W. and Huang, S. 2004. The decline of the Chinese giant salamander Andrias davidianus and implications for its conservation. Oryx 38: 197-202.

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