We confess to paying most of our attention in our posts on Frogs Are Green to the stars of the amphibian world—frogs—and not so much on other amphibians. So to make up for that, we’d like to introduce you to Earth’s largest amphibian—the giant salamander of China and Japan.
This creature is considered a living fossil because it hasn’t changed much in 30 million years. To put things in perspective, 30 million years ago our ancestors were little primates hanging from trees. It would be millions of years before some of these primates descended from the trees, and millions of years after that before the first humans.
The giant salamander lives in mountain streams and lakes and can grow up to 6 feet long. It has four digits on its front legs and five digits on its back legs and is covered with a slimy protective mucous. It spends most of its time walking on the river bottom, though it can swim quickly. On land, its small legs won’t carry it and it must drag itself along.
Like many amphibians, the giant salamander is endangered due to habitat loss. Construction of dams converts their free-flowing stream habitats into standing water or dries them up completely. They are also vulnerable to water pollution from mining activity and farming throughout their range.
Other threats to their habitat includes deforestation around the streams. This exacerbates soil erosion and causes increased runoff and siltation of the streams, reducing water quality and making it difficult for the salamanders to get enough oxygen through their skin. In addition, the giant salamander is considered a delicacy and is also used in traditional Chinese medicine.*
On the BBC News site, Dr. Takeyoshi Tochimoto, director of the Hanzaki Institute near Hyogo in western Japan, gives a guided tour of this unusual creature. (“Hanzaki” is the local name for the giant salamander.) After watching this video, however, I have decided not to hug a giant salamander if I ever meet one. They have a very large mouth and several hundred small teeth on the top and bottom and can bite if angry, causing serious injury. Generally, however, this is a shy and secretive animal and is unfortunately relatively easy to catch.