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Chinese Giant Salamanders (Andrias spp.) Fact Sheet: Physical Characteristics

Physical Characteristics

Body measurements

Attribute Males
Weight 60 kg (132 lb), maximum
Total Length 1.8 m (5.9 ft), maximum*


Data sources: Liu (1950); Murphy et al. (2000); Tapley et al. (2017)

General Appearance

Body

  • Largest salamanders in the world (Liang et al. 2004)
  • Body robust (Nickerson 2004)
    • Appears more flattened when out of water
  • Limbs short (Liu 1950; Song 1989; Nickerson 2004; Dai et al. 2010)
    • Front limbs: 4 digits
    • Back limbs: 5 digits
      • Moderate amount of webbing present
  • Skin fold between front and hind limbs (Dai et al. 2010)
    • Aids absorption of oxygen when under water (Nickerson 2004)
    • Contains many blood vessels
  • Skin smooth and “slimy to the touch” (Laidler and Laidler 1996; Tapley et al. 2017)
    • Small bumps may be present on head and throat; sparsely present on upper body and sides of tail (Liu 1950; Laidler and Laidler 1996; Nickerson 2004)
      • Bumps typically paired in Chinese giant salamanders, whereas separated in A. japonicus (Liu 1950)

Coloration

  • Variable (Laidler and Laidler 1996; Tapley et al. 2017)
    • Pinkish brown to light/dark brown to almost black
  • Black or brown marbled pattern often present (Laidler and Laidler 1996; Tapley et al. 2017)

Head and mouth

  • Head large and flat; snout and mouth broad (Liu and Liu 1998; Heiss et al. 2013; Fortuny et al. 2015)
    • Aid suction feeding
  • Teeth small and pointed (Liu and Liu 1998)
    • To grip prey
  • Eyes small (Liu and Liu 1998)
    • No eye lids (Nickerson 2004)
  • Nostrils small (Tapley et al. 2017)

Tail

  • Flattened vertically (Liu 1950; Liu and Liu 1998)
    • Nearly round at base
    • Thin and flat at tail tip

Sexual Dimorphism

Observable during breeding season

  • In breeding males, glands around vent opening become enlarged (Nickerson 2004)

Identification

Similar-looking species

  • Young Chinese giant salamanders might be mistaken for warty newts (Paramesotriton) (Tapley et al. 2017)

Senses

Vision

  • Poorly developed (Hong et al. 1995)

Mechanoreception

  • “Distant touch” (Montgomery et al. 2009)
    • Detect minute fluctuations in water pressure (water movement) around body
  • Numerous sensory cells on head and around mouth (Hong et al. 1995; see Figure 1)
    • Thought to aid precise detection, capture, and manipulation of prey
    • May help in navigation around underwater objects while foraging
  • Lateral line detects water disturbance along salamander’s sides (Hong et al. 1995; Hong et al. 2000)
    • Detect direction of water flow, distance of nearby underwater objects, approach of predators, etc.

Detection of electric fields

  • Larvae can detect weak electric fields (electroreception) (Hong et al. 1995)
    • Ampullary sensory organs only present in larvae
      • Not present after metamorphosis to adult form
    • May help larvae locate prey (Hong et al. 1995)

Production of electric fields

  • Weak electric discharges observed in 2-year-old salamanders (Olshanskii et al. 2016)
    • Mechanism and function not yet investigated

Other Physical and Physiological Characteristics

Respiration

  • Primarily breathe with lungs (Laidler and Laidler 1996)
    • Must surface periodically to breathe
  • Also absorb oxygen through skin (Cheng 1998)
    • Skin folds along sides increase surface area for oxygen absorption

Immune system

  • Infectious diseases prevalent in aquaculture industry (Cunningham et al. 2016)
    • Substantial scientific attention paid to immune system/response, host-pathogen interactions and genetic resistance, and general disease control (e.g., Ke et al. 2018; Meng et al. 2018; H. Yang et al. 2018)
    • Also see “Diseases” in Mortality and Health; “Relationship to Humans” in Interspecies Interactions

Thermoregulation

  • Tolerate a wide range of temperatures (Browne et al. 2014)
    • 3°C (40°F) (winter) to 25°C (77°F) (summer)
  • Have physiological adaptations to cope with heat stress (e.g., antioxidant enzymes that may protect liver function) (Wang et al. 2018)

Metabolism

  • During winter, activity level and metabolism reduced (Cheng 1998)
    • Fat stored in tail metabolized for some energy needs

Life on the River Floor

Head of a Chinese giant salamander, San Diego Zoo

As an ambush predator, a giant salamander's broad head and jaws help it suck prey into its enormous mouth.

A flat head also helps giant salamanders move against fast-moving water in rivers and streams.

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. All rights reserved.

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