“Monster” is a relative term (who doesn’t have a relative who’s a monster – bada-bing!) but it aptly fits a creature found recently in a cave in southwest China. It’s an extremely rare giant Chinese salamander that weighed in at 52 kg (114 pounds) and measured 1.4 meters (55 inches) in length. Before we go any further, this giant salamander is alive and being cared for by experts.
This ancient living fossil (Andrias davidianus) was reportedly discovered in the municipality of Chongqing by a fisherman named Wang Yong who had one of those experiences every fisherman dreads … he stepped in something soft and slimy. Fortunately for Wang Yong, it wasn’t boot-sucking mud but a giant salamander. He managed to summon wildlife officials who determined that the fish was ill and decided to move it to a nature preserve where it could be cared for.
Giant Chinese salamanders have lived relatively unchanged for 170 million years and play a big part is Chinese folklore and culture. They’re called the “wa wa yu” – which means baby fish – because its cries sound like an infant. One explanation for the yin and yang symbols is that they are two giant salamanders intertwined (sounds like a way to make baby fish).
Once widespread in China, their numbers have been reduced to critically endangered levels by habitat destruction, fungus, folk medicine and forks. Deforestation and the building of dams has severely reduced the giant salamanders' prime living areas. A dangerous fungal infection known as Bsal has spread in China, eating away at the amphibians’ skin and attacking their respiratory and excretion systems. As bad as those are, even more of the giant salamanders have been killed because they’re used in folk medicines for alleged anti-aging properties and as a popular food item.
Farming has helped slow the loss of the giant Chinese salamanders, but growing these prehistoric creatures for food doesn’t allow them to live to be 200 years old like the one found in Chongqing. Moreover, it makes eating the species acceptable and stimulates the growth of the black market in illegally captured salamanders.
“Monster” is indeed a relative term … who are the real monsters in the story of the 200-year-old giant Chinese salamander?