This Food Trend is Putting the Giant Salamander in ‘Catastrophic Decline’

The Chinese giant salamander is now in “catastrophic decline” thanks to our exploitation, scientists are warning.

The Chinese giant salamander is the world’s largest amphibian at up to 1.8 meters in length. It is a fascinating creature, because it is among only a handful in the world that demonstrably haven’t changed much in millions of years.

They are a biologically critical species, because they offer us a glimpse of the planet’s evolutionary history. Unfortunately, thanks to a business-model driven food fad, they’re now rapidly falling toward extinction.

This freshwater salamander was once common across much of China and were once revered as a sort of mascot species for the freshwater lakes. As the BBC explains, things began to change when eating the salamander became a delicacy.

While salamanders cannot be taken from the wild, they can be commercially farmed, thus creating a booming business. This is something the Chinese government supports because it (wrongly) believes that releasing surplus animals back into the wild can only help the salamander.

However, new research published in the journal “Current Biology” shows this isn’t the case.

Chinese researchers tand a team from the Zoological Society of London undertook field surveys of 97 sites where the animals are known to have lived. This spanned around 16 of China’s provinces and took a total of four years. 

What the researchers found was that the numbers of wild salamander had plummeted across the board.

Samuel Turvey of the Zoological Society of London, is quoted as saying: “The over-exploitation of these incredible animals for human consumption has had a catastrophic effect on their numbers in the wild over an amazingly short time span.

“Unless coordinated conservation measures are put in place as a matter of urgency, the future of the world’s largest amphibian is in serious jeopardy.”

But why are the giant salamanders dying?

This is a good question. It seems counter-intuitive that by releasing more salamanders back into the wild, we would be seeing catastrophic population loss. However, the answer might lie in the salamanders’ genetic diversity.

Recent research has suggested that what we thought of as the Chinese giant salamander is actually a number of very similar but distinct species of salamander, all of which have slightly different characteristics and adaptations.

This kind of finding is actually reflective of a wider push to better understand amphibians whose genetic diversity is not well-documented.

This is important, because it points to where the problem might lie. Releasing cultivated salamander back into the wild might sound like a good idea, but it is being done with no appreciation for the genetic diversity found in each of the different sites where the salamander lives and the different characteristics that will require from each salamander species.

The researchers note that, since 2008, 72,000 Chinese giant salamanders have been released from farms. This is a massive influx of genetically similar animals, and this could be serving to dramatically reduce genetic diversity in the wild population, leading to animals that are poorly adapted to the environments in which they find themselves and thus, animals that get sick and die.

They will also breed while in the wild, and this will pass on their genetic similarities, purging the sites of their diversity.

Research further suggests that genetically distinct populations of the giant salamander may now be collapsing, if they haven’t already — we may have already wiped out some of the species before we could even identify them.

The Zoological Society of London describes the Chinese giant salamanders  as a “flagship” species for China and its riverways and notes that, perhaps in many ways like the wild panda, efforts to conserve this species should be made not just for the good of the salamander itself, but also its freshwater ecosystems whose integrity may well depend on a halt to this farm-and-release practice.

After all, animals that are prone to disease often tend to erode the health of the habitats in which they live, meaning this poses a risk to other freshwater species, too.

What is clear is that the Chinese government cannot continue to support the farm-and-release model for giant salamanders because it is not sustainable. At its worst, the practice could cost China its wild giant salamanders entirely.

Related at Care2

Photo credit: Thinkstock.

57 comments

Peggy B
Peggy B5 months ago

nOTED

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Marie W
Marie W7 months ago

Thanks.

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KimJ M
KimJ ManyIssues11 months ago

ty. Sorry, v limited time to earn credits

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KimJ M
KimJ ManyIssues11 months ago

ty

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KimJ M
KimJ ManyIssues11 months ago

ty

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KimJ M
KimJ ManyIssues11 months ago

ty

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KimJ M
KimJ ManyIssues11 months ago

The Chinese, AGAIN :(((((

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AL L
AL Limabout a year ago

Disgusting vile "people"

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Cathy B
Cathy Babout a year ago

Thank you.

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Marija M
Marija Mabout a year ago

So sad.

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