Giant Chinese salamander is at least five distinct species
With individuals weighing in at more than 140 pounds, the critically endangered Chinese giant salamander is well known as the world’s largest amphibian. But researchers reporting in the journal Current Biology now find that those giant salamanders aren’t one species, but five, and possibly as many as eight. The bad news as highlighted by another report appearing in the same issue is that all of the salamanders–once thought to occur widely across China–now face the imminent threat of extinction in the wild, due in no small part to demand for the amphibians as luxury food.
The discoveries highlight the importance of genetic assessments to properly identify the salamanders, the researchers say. It also suggests that the farming and release of giant salamanders back into the wild without any regard for their genetic differences is putting the salamanders’ already dire future at even greater risk. In fact, some of the five newly identified species may already be extinct in the wild.
“We were not surprised to discover more than one species, as an earlier study suggested, but the extent of diversity–perhaps up to eight species–uncovered by the analyses sat us back in our chairs,” says Jing Che from the Kunming Institute of Zoology, Chinese Academy of Sciences. “This was not expected.”
“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,” adds Samuel Turvey, from ZSL (Zoological Society of London. “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 researchers were surprised to learn just how much movement of salamanders has already occurred due to human intervention. Salamander farms have sought to “maximize variation” by exchanging salamanders from distant areas, without realizing they are in fact distinct species, Che explains. As a result, she says, wild populations may now be at risk of becoming locally maladapted due to hybridization across species boundaries.