TOKUSHIMA – Giant salamanders inhabiting rivers in central and western parts of the country may be a nonnative species from China that threatens endemic species, according to recent DNA findings that have alarmed biologists.
“This poses a huge problem for us in terms of protecting (Japanese) giant salamanders,” said Masafumi Matsui, a Kyoto University professor and amphibian expert whose research group released the findings.
Biologists studied giant salamander habitats in various parts of the species’ range between 2005 and 2006. After analyzing DNA taken from 22 animals, they were astonished to find that four were the Chinese species.
The Japanese giant salamander, which can reach more than 1 meter in length and live up to almost 100 years, inhabits rivers in the central and western parts of Honshu, and in Shikoku and Kyushu.
The rare animal used to be hunted for food and medicinal purposes but is now strictly protected by law, having been designated as a special natural monument in 1952.
Its critically endangered Chinese relative, which is the largest of all amphibian species, is ostensibly protected in China, though it is mass bred under license for human consumption.
The two sister species are not easy for nonexperts to tell apart by appearance, making it difficult to assess the extent of the invasive species problem.
In years past, before an international ban on trade in Chinese giant salamanders came into effect, many were imported to Japan for human consumption, with one dealer in Okayama Prefecture having acquired 800 in 1972 for sale to restaurants.