World’s largest amphibian heading for extinction

| 4th June 2018

Wild Chinese giant salamander

Overharvesting for the luxury food market is pushing the iconic Chinese giant salamander to the brink. The future of the world’s largest amphibian is in serious jeopardy unless coordinated conservation measures are put in place. CATHERINE HARTE reports

The overexploitation of these incredible animals for human consumption has had a catastrophic effect on their numbers in the wild over an amazingly short time-span.

The world’s largest amphibian - the Chinese giant salamander - is on the brink of extinction due to the demand from the luxury food market, according to a new study.

Andrias davidianus has now all but disappeared from its traditional freshwater habitats, fished to satisfy the growing demand for this highly coveted delicacy. The amphibians, which can grow up to 1.8m long, are routinely harvested from the wild to stock commercial breeding farms.

Chinese giant salamanders belong to an ancient group of salamanders that diverged from their closest relatives over 170 million years ago during the Jurassic Period, and are considered a global conservation priority for maintaining evolutionary history. Now they are classified as critically endangered by the leading global watchdog of nature conservation.

Most extensive wildlife survey

Dr Samuel Turvey, from Zoological Society of London (ZSL) Institute of Zoology, is a co-author of the report published in the journal Current Biology.

He said: “The overexploitation 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.”

The landmark study details how a team of scientists from ZSL, an international conservation charity, working alongside local partners including the Kunming Institute of Zoology (KIZ), conducted the most extensive wildlife survey seen in China to date. 

Field surveys were carried out at 97 sites in 16 of the country’s 23 provinces over a four-year period, providing first-hand evidence of the desperate plight faced by Chinese giant salamanders, which face threats including poaching for growing human demand.

A related study also published in Current Biology reveals that the Chinese giant salamander, previously thought to represent a single species, actually appears to consist of at least five distinct genetic lineages – some of which are now exceedingly rare and possibly already extinct in the wild.

A flagship species

Dr Fang Yan from KIZ, a co-author, said: “Together with addressing wider pressures such as poaching for commercial farms and habitat loss, 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.”

Chinese legislation prohibits the harvesting of wild populations of Chinese giant salamander. The country’s Ministry of Agriculture supports widespread releases of farmed animals as a conservation measure.

Paradoxically, this approach may be harmful to wild populations as it risks mixing genetic lineages and spreading wildlife disease. The study’s authors instead call for the establishment of captive populations of genetically distinct lineages for the specific purpose of conservation breeding.

Chinese giant salamanders are a flagship species for China's freshwater river systems. Efforts to conserve these charismatic amphibians will play a vital role in protecting the region’s habitats and biodiversity, as well as freshwater resources for the people of China.

This Author

Catherine Harte is a contributing editor of The Ecologist. Click here for more information on the work ZSL is doing to conserve amphibians worldwide. 

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