New Chinese giant salamander species is largest amphibian in the world
The largest amphibian in the world is a newly-discovered species of giant salamander that once had a home at London Zoo.
It had been long-assumed that a 74-year-old specimen now housed at the Natural History Museum was part of the wider species of Chinese giant salamanders, which are now critically endangered.
But after a detailed examination of DNA from 17 museum specimens and tissue samples from the wild, researchers say they have evidence that suggests it is actually one of two new species.
The original, once widespread throughout central, southern and eastern China, is known as andrias davidianus, but its genetic lineage is said to be markedly different to other salamanders found across rivers and mountain ranges.
Researchers have named one new species andrias sligoi, or the South China giant salamander, while the other one is yet to be given its own moniker.
The idea for andrias sligoi was first proposed in the 1920s, when an unusual-looking salamander from southern China was partway through its 20-year stay at London Zoo.
Now preserved as a specimen at the Natural History Museum, researchers were able to revisit the theory that it was a different species and came to the conclusion that it was.
At almost two metres long, andrias sligoi is the biggest of the three types of Chinese giant salamander, making it the largest of the approximately 8,000 amphibian species alive today.
As for the unnamed species, so far it has only been examined based on tissue samples from the Huangshan mountains, which are located in southern Anhui province in eastern China.
The study was led by Professor Samuel Turvey from the Zoological Society Of London, and the groundbreaking findings were published in the journal Ecology and Evolution.
Professor Turvey said analysis by his team revealed that the Chinese giant salamander species diverged at some point between 3.1 and 2.4 million years ago, during a period of mountain formation.
He said the rise of the Tibetan Plateau in the west could have isolated populations and led to the evolution of distinct species across several different landscapes.
Melissa Marr, researcher at the Natural History Museum, said the findings came at a time when “urgent intervention” was needed to save Chinese giant salamanders in the wild.
Their numbers have plummeted, mainly due to stocking farms that cater to the Chinese luxury food market.
Ms Marr said: “Our results indicate that tailored conservation measures should be put in place that preserve the genetic integrity of each distinct species.
“Our research also highlights the central role that Natural History Museum collections can play in the conservation of critically endangered species.”
Four young giant salamanders were introduced to London Zoo in September 2016 after Border Force intercepted an attempt to illegally import them.
One of them, named Professor Lew, has moved into a state-of-the-art tank in the on-site Reptile House, while the other three are being cared for behind the scenes.
Keepers will eventually introduce another animal to Professor Lew as a mate and the remaining two may then move to a different zoo, as the adults are highly territorial and need to be housed in separate enclosures.