Chinese giant salamanders are exactly like their name suggests — giant. When fully grown, they can be as long as a person is tall, making them the biggest amphibian on the planet.
“They can get up to almost 6 feet long, and they can weigh about as much as the average Chinese woman,” Robert Murphy, senior curator of herpetology at the Royal Ontario Museum, told The Dodo. “They’re monster animals.”
They may look monstrous, but Chinese giant salamanders are actually very gentle, Murphy explained, and they even tolerate people picking them up. But these animals, who live exclusively in water, can be difficult to handle for another reason.
“They’re absolutely slimy,” Murphy said. “And if you try to hold them, they just wiggle out of your hands.”
Chinese giant salamanders also play a special part in Chinese culture — according to a legend, their shape inspired the famous yin and yang motif.
But these unique animals are quickly disappearing from the wild. Their meat is considered a delicacy in Chinese culture, and they’re also used in traditional Chinese medicine — as a result, they’ve been nearly hunted to death. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has now classed the Chinese giant salamander as a critically endangered species.
“They’re being eaten to extinction,” Murphy said. “Here’s a giant, iconic animal within China, and it’s in extremely dire straits right now.”
To put up with the demand for giant salamander meat, people have started raising millions of these animals on farms, which has put even more stress on wild populations, according to Murphy.
“The biggest current threat to them right now is farming because farms pay a fortune for wild-caught salamanders, and wild-caught salamanders are still being poached,” Murphy said. “And [there’s] the attempt to sell them to farms as breeding stock.”
Scientists believe there are five to eight different species of Chinese giant salamanders, but breeders are mixing all the different kinds together, creating new hybrids.
The Zoological Society of London (ZSL) recently tried to figure out how many Chinese giant salamanders were left in the wild by surveying 97 sites in 16 of China’s 23 provinces over a four-year period. The results were devastating — they only found salamanders in four sites, and the individuals actually seemed to be farmed hybrid ones who’d been dumped by breeders.
Despite this bleak outlook, researchers and conservationists are working hard to help save the Chinese giant salamander from extinction.
“Together with addressing wider pressures such as poaching for commercial farms and habitat loss and it’s essential that suitable safeguards are put in place to protect the unique genetic lineage of these amazing animals, which dates back to the time of the dinosaurs,” Dr. Fang Yan, a researcher at the Kunming Institute of Zoology, said in a statement.