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Giant salamanders enter Washington breeding program

By Jordan Schaul When I first talked to Senior Curator, Ed Bronikowski at the Smithsonian National Zoo about current and upcoming projects last year he was excited  that the zoo was planning to acquire Japanese giant salamanders Senior Curator, Ed Bronikowski (Opening of Giant Salamander Breeding Center) Photo Credit: NZP (Andrias japonicus) by the year’s...

By Jordan Schaul

When I first talked to Senior Curator, Ed Bronikowski at the Smithsonian National Zoo about current and upcoming projects last year he was excited  that the zoo was planning to acquire Japanese giant salamanders

4818624223_d2Ed Bronikowski.jpg

Senior Curator, Ed Bronikowski (Opening of Giant Salamander Breeding Center)

Photo Credit: NZP

(Andrias japonicus) by the year’s end and exhibit them by this summer. These one- time permanent residents of the zoo in the 1940s through 1970 are extremely rare in North American institutions, and have not bred outside of Japan in over 100 years.

Today, the National Zoo invited Japanese diplomats and others, including science writers like myself to the opening of the Japanese Giant Salamander Breeding Center at the zoo’s Reptile Discovery Center.  One animal is on exhibit at Asia Trail.


Photo credit: Mehgan Murphy, Smithsonian’s National Zoo

These iconic caudates in the Japanese culture are also known as Ōsanshōuo or “giant pepper fish,” a reference to the smell of the milky white secretion they produce when agitated.

The National Zoo which is acclaimed for developing conservation efforts for uber-iconic wildlife ambassadors like the giant panda, the most notable of flagship species has once again endeavored to recognize another flagship species. In this case, in an effort to engender more awareness and support for amphibians, a taxon which faces global decline as a result of climate change, habitat loss and fragmentation, pollution and mass mortalities from cutaneous chytrid (chytridiomycosis) fungal infections, the zoo is campaigning on behalf of giant salamanders..


National Zoo Director, Dennis Kelly (Opening of Giant Salamander Breeding Center)

Photo Credit: NZP

Zoo Director, Dennis Kelly, already responsible for enhancing US relationships with Chinese entities involved with giant panda conservation and quite influential in strengthening US-Chinese conservation and research initiatives for giant panda in the U.S. while at one of the few other zoos holding giant panda, says that “[the National Zoo] looks forward to collaborating with [Japanese colleagues] to save this magnificent species, [the Japanese Giant Salamander].


Salamander Breeding Facility

Photo Credit: NZP

The six  juvenile salamanders (two males and four females) were a gift from the City of Hiroshima’s Asa Zoological Park and will participate in conservation programs under the auspices of the Association of Zoo and Aquarium’s Cryptobranchid Interest Group through efforts in research and propagation undertaken by staff working at the National Zoo’s new Japanese Giant Salamander Breeding Center. The zoo’s facility is comprised of three custom made acrylic aquariums which hold 2,500 gallons of water. Life support systems tailored specifically for the salamanders include biological and mechanical filtration and chillers to maintain water temperatures between 35- 68 degrees Fahrenheit. Animals can be isolated if needed.


Smithsonian’s Under Secretary for Science, Eva Pell (Opening of Giant Salamander Breeding Center)

Photo Credit: NZP

One of the missions of the Smithsonian as stated by Under Secretary for Science, Dr. Eva Pell is “to understand and sustain a biodiverse planet.” Hence, husbandry staff, research scientists, and clinical veterinarians, and pathologists will collect baseline data from salamander skin biopsies, blood and fecal specimens to determine what constitutes a healthy salamander in terms of enzymatic function, blood cell count, etc.

A major focus of study will be on the resistance by these salamanders to the chytrid fungus which is one of the major threats to the 2,000 spp. of amphibians facing extinction among 6,000 extant species of amphibians.  Study of resistance in giant salamanders to this skin disease may help the zoo find a treatment or cure for the great majority of species that are susceptible to the fungal pathogen.

Curator of Herpetology, Jim Murphy also explained to me that they have personnel dedicated to compiling a behavioral inventory on the animals which can be used to assess breeding potential, among other things.  Further collaboration with the Asa Zoological Park and other organizations will help develop a strategic plan for conserving this flagship species through a breeding program spearheaded by the National Zoo. The zoo will provide offspring of these animals to other captive wildlife facilities for education programs and public display.



When Ed (Bronikowsiki) had worked with colleagues of mine at a public aquarium in Cleveland he had received great acclaim for his acquisition and display of lungfish, a group of highly primitive, air breathing, long lived, benthic omnivores also known as “salamander fish.”  Ed is truly an aficionado of the rare and odd ectothermic megavertebrates of the animal kingdom and particularly those species that are not commonly displayed in captivity.  Today’s living collection curators are not interested in acquiring the obscure just for the sake of adding something unique to the collection. It is quite the contrary.  Zoos continue to promote obscure and unknown species through public display of these animal ambassadors to raise awareness of their mere existence, along with threats to conservation programs. These efforts complement captive breeding and research programs in zoos, just as they do for more commonly displayed imperiled wildlife like tigers and elephants.

On the ground conservation efforts make a great impact, but if no one has ever seen a Japanese giant salamander much less heard of one, it’s difficult to garner support for the conservation of the species.  And it’s not unusual for an endemic species like these giant salamanders (only found in Japan) to be as unknown to local people as they are probably quite unknown to foreigners like ourselves. With that said, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Ed drew attention to lungfish many years ago and is now campaigning on behalf of giant salamanders.

These highly aquatic, nocturnal caudates reach a length of nearly 1.5 meters (5 ft),  a weight of fifty-five pounds, and are actually the second largest salamander in the world. The closely related Chinese giant salamander (Andrias davidianus) is larger.  Japanese giant salamanders inhabit cool, clear springs that must be well oxygenated as they lose their lungs early in life.

There is actually a relative of the Asian giant salamanders living in the streams of mountainous regions and hillsides of eastern North America. Hellbenders (Cryptobranchus spp.) only reach lengths of up to a foot (0.75 m), half the size of Japanese giant salamanders. But I will be the first to admit that I would much rather pick up a 2.5 ft crocodilian, than a slippery hellbender or a Japanese giant salamander for that matter. Cryptobranchids can inflict one heck of a painful bite and slip out of one’s hands.

Animal Keeper Rick Quintero confirmed this for me. All members of the family Cryptobranchidae inhabit well oxygenated streams. They all have large “floppy skin” or loose skin folds which provide extensive surface area for cutaneous oxygen exchange, undergo incomplete metamorphosis (retaining gill slits) and have no eyelids. Their eye sight is poor and cryptobranchids rely on sensory input from a lateral line system to aid them in foraging.  As a far as foraging is concerning they pretty much eat anything they can swallow, but often happen across fish, smaller salamanders and even rodents. We don’t often think of amphibians as hazardous to work with among zoo collection animals, but as a former keeper I would consider giant salamanders to be among the most formidable of the members of this taxon. Although the Japanese giant salamander has no predators they are threatened by over-collection, hunting, pollution, and habitat loss. These salamanders are listed as near threatened by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (WCN).


Rick Quintero (left), the primary Japanese giant salamander keeper at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, feeds the Zoo’s new juvenile salamanders for Japanese Ambassador Ichiro Fujisaki (right). Ambassador Fujisaki was at the Zoo today to help celebrate the arrival of the salamanders.

Photo Credit: NZP

The Smoky Mountains region is considered the salamander capital of world. In fact, here in Appalachia, conservation biologists and herpetologists from the National Zoo have an opportunity to study and restore salamanders to parts of their historic range. Eastern hellbenders (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis) also known as “snot otters” and “devil dogs” in the local vernacular are currently found in Maryland.  At greater risk is the Shenandoah salamander (Plethodon shenandoah) which is endemic to Virginia and listed as an endangered species.  The zoo will continue to contribute to the conservation of these local species which face similar threats that other amphibians encounter.

Asia will remain home to the largest and perhaps most long lived salamanders. Some reports indicate that wild Japanese giant salamanders have lived as long as 80 years if not more. Members of the order Caudata (Urodela) (refers to the presence of a tail) are found in North America, Central America, northern South America, Europe, the Mediterranean, North Africa, Southeast Asia, East Asia, Japan and Taiwan. The order is
represented by 390 species  in 9 families with new discoveries made with some relative frequency and unfortunately species loss due to a host of anthropogenic factors.  Salamanders range in size from quite small (< 3cm) to very large (160 cm (>5 ft.).

Having studied plethodontid and ambystomatid salamanders for advanced degrees and having worked with almost all charismatic megafauna managed in captive breeding programs,I must commend this effort on a part of the National Zoo to raise attention for amphibians by selecting a flag ship species that as Ed has said “are really cool [and the giant pandas of the amphibian world].” This will do much work for international diplomacy, giant salamanders, zoo conservation and amphibians everywhere.



Jordan Schaul is a conservation biologist and a collection curator with the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. He received his PhD in conservation/veterinary preventive medicine from Ohio State University and a master’s degree in zoology. He is a council member (ex officio) of the International Association for Bear Research and Management (IBA), a member and coordinator for education and outreach for the Bear Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, an advisor to the Bear Taxon Advisory Group of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, correspondent editor and captive bear news correspondent for International Bear News, and member of the advisory council of the National Wildlife Humane Society, which promotes high standards for wild carnivore care and welfare among private sanctuaries in North America. He is the creator of the Zoo Peeps brand which hosts a blog for the global zoo and aquarium community and two wildlife conservation oriented radio programs. He enrolled in clinical degree programs in veterinary medicine and has been on leave to pursue interests in animal management/husbandry science and conservation education.

Read more blog posts by Jordan Schaul.

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