Sunday 29 August 2010

Giant Salamander

There are three species of Giant Salamander, all very similar to each other. The Hellbender from North America grows to about 75 cms long, the Japanese Giant Salamander, found in Japan of all places, grows to 1.5 metres long, while the Chinese Giant Salamander from Peru (wait... I've just checked my records and am reliably informed that it actually comes from a place known as "China". Let's continue, shall we?) and grows to a length of 1.8 metres. This makes them the biggest, second biggest and third biggest amphibians in the world, everyone's a winner! Yaaaay!

But oh dear are they a sight. Kinda flattened and low to the ground, short stubby legs, huge fat looking tails, small nostrils and even smaller eyes. Oh yeh, and a gigantic mouth that makes them look a tad like something from out of Sesame Street. Slimey, wrinkly skin with bits and bobs all over like something from out of Sesame Street that's been in the bath too long. Clearly the giant salamanders would find it difficult in the cut-throat world of fashion, the catwalk does not beckon and I hope they can eventually grow to accept this. But then no clotheshorse could live the life of any salamander, let alone the extra strain of a really big one. A case of horses for courses then.

The immediate problem for an amphibian of this size is simply getting enough oxygen to live on. Some salamanders have simple lungs, some have gills and others can breathe through their skin, so there are a few options here. The giants take a 'bit of this, bit of that' approach, but none of the other. They breathe through their dinky little nostrils and can sometimes be seen rearing up to get a lungful of air. Along their flanks is a kind of frill that is full of blood vessels, through which they can absorb oxygen from the water. But they don't have gills, despite being entirely aquatic.

A great help is that they are also very choosy about where they spend their time, only clean, shallow, fast flowing waters will do, for this is where oxygen is most abundant. Their more specific home is under huge rocks or fallen trees where they spend their days in dignified lassitude. Come the night however, these nocturnal creatures will arise, grappling through the watery undergrowth, propelled by a chunky, compressed tail and dorsal fin, probably not brewing a coffee (but I'm sure they would if they could), all for one purpose: to break their sunlit fast.

Giant salamanders have small eyes and, as you might expect, poor eyesight. It might be thought that hunting in the dark isn't therefore a great idea, but were you to say this to one of these Goliaths it might just laugh in your face. I'm not sure you'd want a gigantic mouth like that gaping wildly in whole hearted mirth. Maybe you would, maybe you'd put it on youtube. On second thought, HANDS OFF MY IDEA!

Anyway, giant salamanders have a lateral line, much like fish. This means that they are sensitive to movement and can 'feel' or rather hear potential prey around them. Insects, fish, other amphibians, nothing is safe. With a flick of the tail, this picture of graceful idleness can quickly gobble down anything in its path with remarkable speed. That's something to keep note of when the breeding season comes around. A cavity is dug and the female lays some 500 eggs inside. Once they're fertilised, the male guards them for some 2 months before they hatch and the larvae go it alone. Not exactly a stay-at-home dad, but getting there!

When you consider that some giant salamanders can live for as long as 80 years and have no direct competitors, it's pretty clear that these beasts are master of their watery domain.


Unknown said...

Except for, y'know, all of the toxic pollution in the water thanks to humans

Joseph JG said...

Well, indeed. Unfortunately that kind of stuff is pretty much always lurking somewhere.