The South China giant salamander (Andrias sligoi) a new and much larger species of salamander.
Researchers with the Zoological Society of London, studying DNA from salamanders collected in the early 20th century have identified two new species that once roamed the earth, one that the researchers believe to be the biggest amphibian on record.
The researchers studied 17 museum specimens of Chinese giant salamander as well as tissue samples of wild specimens and have concluded that the Chinese giant salamander is in fact three distinct species, Andrias davidianus, which previously was thought to be a single species, the South China giant salamander (Andrias sligoi) a new and much larger species of salamander, and a third species which has not yet been named.
“Our analysis reveals that Chinese giant salamander species diverged between 3.1 and 2.4 million years ago. These dates correspond to a period of mountain formation in China as the Tibetan Plateau rose rapidly, which could have isolated giant salamander populations and led to the evolution of distinct species in different landscapes,” Professor Samuel Turvey of ZSL’s Institute of Zoology and lead author of a new paper describing the species said in a statement released by the ZSL.
“The decline in wild Chinese giant salamander numbers has been catastrophic, mainly due to recent overexploitation for food. We hope that this new understanding of their species diversity has arrived in time to support their successful conservation, but urgent measures are required to protect any viable giant salamander populations that might remain.
Salamanders are currently moved widely around China, for conservation translocation and to stock farms that cater for China’s luxury food market. Conservation plans must now be updated to recognise the existence of multiple giant salamander species, and movement of these animals should be prohibited to reduce the risk of disease transfer, competition, and genetic hybridisation.”
Andrias davidianus, which can grow to five feet, has been a legally protected species in China since 1988 and there are 22 nature reserves in the country devoted to the salamander. While the wild population has declined rapidly due to poaching and the degradation of its environment, they are captive bred for consumption, but the long time it takes for them to grow has encouraged the taking of them in the wild. Chinese giant salamander meat can can fetch $100 a pound and you can’t tell the difference between a wild caught and farmed specimen.
Andrias sligoi, which is believed to be larger than A. davidianus, was originally proposed as a new species in the 1920s but for some reason it was not. The specimen used by the researchers at ZSL lived for 20 years at the London Zoo before it died, and it is based on this specimen that the new species was discovered.
The complete paper, Historical museum collections clarify the evolutionary history of cryptic species radiation in the world’s largest amphibians,” can be read on the Ecology and Evolution website.