Skip to Main Content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.
San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance logo
San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance Library logo

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

Taxonomy and Nomenclature


  • 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


  • 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)


  • 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


  • 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)


Television and film


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.

SDZWA Library Links