The Chinese giant salamander is often described as a ‘living fossil’. It’s an animal that has changed little in 170 million years – and its shape is believed to have inspired the ‘yin’ and ‘yang’ symbols.
But now the creatures – which can grow up to 5.9 feet in length – could be on the verge of extinction, due to being poached as a luxury food item.
Known as the world’s largest amphibian, researchers now believe giant salamanders are not one species but five, all of which face an imminent threat of extinction in the wild.
Researchers carried out field surveys at 97 sites where the animals were known to live during a four-year project.
The new report in Current Biology 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 uncertain future at even greater risk.
Some of the five newly identified species may already be extinct in the wild.
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‘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,’ says Samuel Turvey, from the 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.’
Turvey and colleagues conducted field surveys and interviews from 2013 and 2016, in an effort that was possibly the largest wildlife survey ever conducted in China.
The data revealed that populations of this once-widespread species are now critically depleted or extirpated across all surveyed areas of their range, and illegal poaching is widespread.
The researchers were unable to confirm survival of wild salamanders at any survey site.
While the harvesting of wild salamanders is already prohibited, the findings show that farming practices and existing conservation activities that treat all salamander populations as a single species are potentially doing great damage, the researchers say.