Godzilla vs. Godzilla—How the Chinese Giant Salamander is taking a toll on its Japanese Comic Counterpart

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Japanese giant salamanders (Andrias japonicas) inhabit the slow-moving, rocky waterways of Japan. Photo © Paul Williams

No slow flowing stream is safe. No city center intact. And skyscrapers crumble at the wake of its imminent unveiling. “It’s Godzilla” echoes through the now still urban sprawls. Oh wait, we’re talking about a salamander—albeit a giant salamander belonging to the Andrias genus. Our global infrastructures are safe, but these imposing amphibians are anything but.

There’s a proverbial yin and yang to globalization. The overlaps of spherical, cultural influences are undeniably great. But there’s no denying – and many times at the expense of our natural world – that these merges leave traces.  And one such bipedal foot print we’ve left on our planet is the chaos brought on by humans gambling with faunal distribution—and so the invasive species is born.

Both the Japanese giant salamander (Andrias japonicas) and Chinese giant salamander (Andrias davidianus) have incredibly poor eyesight. They rely primarily on a sensory lateral line system to interpret their freshwater world. Photo © Smithsonian National Zoo

Both the Japanese giant salamander (Andrias japonicas) and Chinese giant salamander (Andrias davidianus) have incredibly poor eyesight. They rely primarily on a sensory lateral line system to interpret their freshwater world. Photo © Smithsonian National Zoo

Growing up to 5ft in length and tipping the metric scales at 25kg, The Japanese Giant Salamander is the second largest living amphibian in our world today—its Chinese phylogenetic relative reign’s emperor. And just like its Chinese relative, the Japanese Giant Salamander favors similar environmental and ecological conditions. And it’s inferred that the two exhibit mirroring reproductive behaviors—some of you may know where this is heading by now.

Active by night, the nocturnal giants are known for their vocalizations, too. In fact, the Chinese giant salamander is also garnered with the nickname “infant fish” due to the whinny, child-like calls they’re capable of emitting. Photo © Joachim S. Muller

Active by night, the nocturnal giants are known for their vocalizations, too. In fact, the Chinese giant salamander is also garnered with the nickname “infant fish” due to the whinny, child-like calls they’re capable of emitting. Photo © Joachim S. Muller

In the shallow depths of the Kamogawa – and now localized stretches in the Katsuragawa river system- these two remnants of an ancient taxonomy clash. And reproduce like rabbits. Like all Hynobiid salamanders, these evolutionary-suspended giants practice external fertilization—all the better to avoid drinking from untreated water sources. The hybrid pairings are so successful in fact, Professor Massafumi Matsu of Koyto University suspects that nearly fifty-percent of all giants conceived in the affected areas are hybridized. This success rate is in part to the natural aggression of the Chinese giant salamander males overwhelming their much calmer Japanese river-rivals during mate selection.

Often called “pepper fish”, Chinese and Japanese giant salamanders camouflage seamlessly into the river banks where they ambush would-be prey from. Photo © Ron Decloux

Often called “pepper fish”, Chinese and Japanese giant salamanders camouflage seamlessly into the river banks where they ambush would-be prey from. Photo © Ron Decloux

But the glaring question still remains: how did the Chinese behemoth enter into the waterways of Kyoto? All fingers at this moment should point toward your umami-inclined taste buds. More than likely, the Chinese giant salamander was brought to the island country during the 70’s as indulgent delicacy to be served up by Japanese aristocrats. Some managed to escape their wok destiny.

In a world plagued by sensationalized media, drastic – and quite frankly stagnated – eradication “solutions” are always under the limelight. No, the answer is not to chemically sterilize the affected water ways. And no, a blind witch hunt for the misplaced salamanders and their mixed offspring is not a suitable solution either—more importantly; the Chinese giant is an internationally protected species. So then, what is the humane solution? A proposal that attempts to collect, relocate, and – for the salamanders of Misfit Island – offer a captive rearing solution would seem most fit. But as we’ve learned from past dealings with alien species, any well executed proposal is simply a means to mitigate population densities and their environmental impact. Established populations are just that—established.

Mesocosms– housing units that allow natural environmental conditions to remain under controlled observation – have become essential in both Japanese and Chinese giant salamander conservation work. Photo © Yakashi Yamaoku

Mesocosms– housing units that allow natural environmental conditions to remain under controlled observation – have become essential in both Japanese and Chinese giant salamander conservation work. Photo © Yakashi Yamaoku

Wading our feet in the divine pool of ecological balance is where no human appendage should ever find itself. Our selfish, intrusive disturbances ripple through Mother Nature’s still, level-headed meniscus. Reflections of a now once sound ecosystem become refracted in the wake of unwanted motion. And now – for the first time ever in modern history – Godzilla, peering out from under his aquatic lair, realizes he’s not alone.