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Chinese Giant Salamanders (Andrias spp.) Fact Sheet: Taxonomy & History

Taxonomy and Nomenclature

Taxonomy

  • Conventionally, all populations of Chinese giant salamanders considered 1 species, Andrias davidianus (Yan et al. 2018)
  • Turvey et al. (2019) identified 3 genetically distinct species
    • Each isolated within a major river drainage/mountain range
    • New species names forthcoming
      • Turvey et al. (2019) recommend 3 species designations:
        • Andrias davidianus (Blanchard, 1871) — northern Yangtze/Sichuan
        • Andrias sligoi (Boulenger, 1924) — Pearl/Nanling
        • Undescribed species — Huangshan
    • Distinct genetic lineages identified in other studies (Murphy et al. 2000; Tao et al. 2005; Yan et al. 2018; Liang et al. 2019)
      • Some may constitute additional species (Samuel Turvey, personal communication)
        • Not yet confirmed

Nomenclature

  • Species: davidianus
    • Named for Father Armand David (1826-1900), a French Catholic priest who was a missionary to China (Zhao and Adler 1993; Beoleons et al. 2013)

Synonyms

  • Sieboldia davidiana (Liang et al. 2004, Frost 2019)
  • Megalobatrachus variations (e.g., M. sligoi, japonicus, or davidianus) (Frost 2019)
  • Andrias davidianus davidianus (ITIS 2019)
  • See Liu (1950) for less common synonyms

Common names

  • Chinese giant salamander (English) (Liang et al. 2004, Frost 2019)
  • Da ni (大鲵) (Cunningham et al. 2016), na yu (Maslin 1950), or “nei-yu” (Liu 1950)

Other colloquial or local names

  • Wawayu (娃娃鱼) or “baby fish” (Sowerby 1925, as cited by Maslin 1950; Shu-Cheng et al. 1990; Wang et al. 2004; Dai et al. 2010; Cunningham et al. 2016)
    • Refers to the vocalizations this salamander purportedly gives when caught; these sound like a human baby’s cry
  • Zhu bu chi (猪不吃) (Cunningham et al. 2016)

 

Evolutionary History

Fossil history and evolutionary relationships

  • Giant salamanders (Family Cryptobranchidae) are members of an early amphibian lineage (Gao and Shubin 2003; Wiens et al. 2005)
    • Termed “living fossils” (Gao and Shubin 2003)
    • Emerged during Jurassic, approximately 150 to 170 mya (Gao and Shubin 2003; Roelants et al. 2007; Turvey et al. 2019)
    • Asian origin (Gao and Shubin 2003)
  • Andrias and Cryptobranchus diverged about 55 to 70 mya (Wiens 2007; Turvey et al. 2019)
  • Chinese giant salamanders and the Japanese giant salamander (Andrias japonicus) diverged approximately 8 mya (Wiens 2007; Yan et al. 2018; Turvey et al. 2019)
  • Chinese giant salamander species diverged from late Miocene (6 to 11 mya) to middle Pliocene (3 to 4 mya) (Yan et al. 2018; Liang et al. 2019; Turvey et al. 2019)
    • Contributing factors to species isolation:
      • Rapid tectonic uplift and mountain range formation
      • Separation of river systems in East Asia
  • Chinese giant salamanders have high conservation priority, in part because they are evolutionarily distinct (Isaac et al. 2012)
    • A. davidianus ranked 2nd most important of 4,334 amphibian species by Isaac et al. (2012)
    • Key to understanding how aquatic animals adapted to life on land (Dai et al. 2010; Su et al. 2018)

Closest living/extant relatives

  • Japanese giant salamander, Andrias japonicus (Matsui et al. 2008)
  • Hellbender, Cryptobranchus alleganiensis (Cunningham et al. 2016)

Cultural History

History

  • Chinese giant salamanders referenced in ancient Chinese writings, often as a fish (catfish) or otter-like animal (Liu 1950)
    • Books written by Confucius and his pupils
    • AD 300: Koo Po illustrates the Chinese giant salamander and describes its vocalizations
    • AD 600: represented in The Classic of Mountains and Seas
      • Core source of Chinese mythology
    • AD 1120: first scientific dissection by Koen-tzeun-pi
  • 1869: first scientific description by Europeans (Liu 1950)
  • 1970s: efforts to breed Chinese giant salamanders in aquaculture farms begin
  • See historical notes under “Traditional Chinese Medicine” in Threats to Survival

Culture and folklore

  • In some places in China, once considered bad luck to touch a giant salamander (Cunningham et al. 2016)

Books

Television and film

Classification

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Amphibia — amphibians

Order: Caudata — salamanders

Family: Cryptobranchidae (Fitzinger, 1826) — giant salamanders, hellbender

Genus: Andrias (Tschudi, 1837) — giant salamanders

Species: Andrias spp.*— Chinese giant salamanders

*Yan et al. (2018), Liang et al. (2019), and Turvey et al. (2019) demonstrate that Andrias davidanus should be split into 3 or more species (names to be formalized/described).

Sources: Zhao and Adler (1993); Yan et al. (2018), Frost (2019), ITIS (2019); Liang et al. (2019); Turvey et al. (2019)

Giant Salamander

Lithograph of giant salamander-Wellcome Collection

Lithograph of a giant salamander.

Colour lithograph after A. Weczerzick.

Image credit: © Wellcome Collection. CC BY 4.0.

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