Squishy, Sharp-Toothed Giants: The Giant Salamander

Squishy, Sharp-Toothed Giants: The Giant Salamander

Over the weekend I watched an interesting episode of River Monsters in which the host went tracking the legend of the Kappa. He ultimately decided that the source of the legend was the real-world (but very freaky) Giant Japanese Salamander.

The Giant Japanese Salamander runs to about five feet long, and about 55 pounds. It lives in high, splashy mountain streams with good circulation and cool water. It needs these conditions because it absorbs oxygen through its skin, and therefore requires a highly oxygenated environment.

There are many points of confluence between the Giant Japanese Salamander and the Kappa. The salamander has a broad, dish-shaped head, and it is very moist (being covered with slime). It's conceivable that it could be seen as a dish holding water, as in the legend of the Kappa. The salamander also nicely fits the description of "a fish with hands," as it does have creepy little hands and feet with very distinct toes. (Imagine Mickey Mouse's hands, made of slugs.)

And finally, the Giant Japanese Salamander has a nasty temper and sharp teeth. It is a predator which is adapted for snatching and eating crayfish and fish, and it has a wide gaping mouth that it is very happy to use. In fact, the host was nearly bitten several times in the process of catching a Giant Japanese Salamander by hand and carrying it to the shore. It's easy to imagine a Giant Japanese Salamander biting a small child, possibly even trying to drag it underwater. Which again matches the legend to a T.

Giant salamanders as a category exist in three places on Earth: in Japan, in China, and in the northeast United States. The Chinese Giant Salamander is the biggest, clocking in at a whopping six feet long. Sadly, the Chinese Giant Salamander has somehow been introduced to its Japanese cousin's territory, and hybrid breeding is one of many threats the Giant Japanese Salamander faces.

The American branch of the family is considerably smaller. The Hellbender lives in high mountain streams throughout the Northeast, and grows up to two feet long. It also has the unfortunate - if hilariously descriptive - colloquial name, "snot otter."

Unlike the relatively rare and solitary Chinese and Japanese giants, the Hellbender was once quite numerous in American streams. Unfortunately its numbers have dwindled considerably in the last few decades.

All giant salamanders face the same set of problems. They are habitat specialists, which means that they are extremely vulnerable to problems with their habitats. In the case of giant salamanders, these problems include chemical and fertilizer runoff to streams, river silting, rising river temperatures due to logging, and overfishing.

Ecologists often sneer at the masses for preferring to save "charismatic megafauna" like the panda and the polar bear. But what can be said of uncharismatic megafauna like the giant salamanders? They clearly deserve saving, too. Not least because saving giant salamanders means saving a whole host of other species, and a beautiful mountain stream to boot.

Just try to put the phrase "snot otter" out of your mind when you do it.

Photo credit: Flickr/Smithsonian's National Zoo