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Chinese giant salamanders being eaten into extinction

Poaching threatens the world's largest amphibian, a delicacy in the luxury food market.

salamanderrobertmurphy

Researcher Jing Che holds a Chinese giant salamander, which can get much bigger than this.

Robert Murphy

Chinese giant salamanders are the world's largest amphibian, reaching hefty weights of over 140 pounds (64 kilograms). They're magnificent creatures, and they're also a delicacy in China's luxury food market, where they're put into soups and stews. An extensive study found the animals are nearly extinct in the wild, eaten into oblivion.

The Zoological Society of London describes how farmers collect the amphibians in the wild to stock their breeding programs. The salamanders are listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.  

A Chinese giant salamander lays in the water.

Robert Murphy

A team of scientists from the Zoological Society of London and the Kunming Institute of Zoology in China went into the field and surveyed 97 sites across 16 Chinese provinces over the course of four years. 

They published their findings this week in the journal Current Biology as two papers: Imminent extinction in the wild of the world's largest amphibian and The Chinese giant salamander exemplifies the hidden extinction of cryptic species.

"The researchers were unable to confirm survival of wild salamanders at any survey site," Cell Press, publisher of Current Biology, said in a statement.

The giant salamanders are listed as a protected wildlife species in China, but that hasn't slowed their decline due to poaching and habitat loss. 

If the salamanders go extinct in the wild, then this will be the end to what was a long history tracing back 170 million years to the Jurassic Period when the amphibians branched off from their closest relatives.

One of the studies focuses on the surprising amount of genetic diversity found within the giant-salamander group. The researchers discovered at least five distinct species. There's concern that commercial farms and conservation programs are cross-breeding different species. 

"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," said study co-author Fang Yan from the Kunming Institute of Zoology. The scientists call for more stringent captive breeding programs that take into account the different genetic lines.

"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," said Samuel Turvey of the Zoological Society of London.

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