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How a Pyramid Scheme Doomed the World’s Largest Amphibians

The world’s largest amphibian should have been easy to find.

While most salamanders are the size of your finger, Chinese giant salamanders can be as big as your entire body. Even average individuals can grow to Labrador size. Their heads are broad and flattened, their eyes are small and lidless, and their bodies look like something you might find left behind in a toilet. Their skin has the color of a brownie and the texture of a wet prune. When disturbed, they make a noise that sounds uncannily like a crying baby; in Chinese, their common name translates to “infant fish.”

In five years of searching, Andrew Cunningham and his 80-strong team of surveyors barely heard that noise. In what is possibly the largest wildlife survey ever conducted in China, they scoured 50 sites in the Chinese provinces where these behemoths once thrived. They swept rivers and streams with their headlamps. They flipped over rock after rock. They put out bait. But after all that effort, they found just 24 individuals. And genetic analyses suggest that most of these—maybe even all—had escaped or been released from farms.

The team can’t be sure if any wild individuals still exist. “It’s awful,” Cunningham says. “It’s a really sad story.”

These giants are part of the oldest lineage of salamanders, which separated from the others around 170 million years ago—a time before flowers and birds, before Brontosaurus and Stegosaurus. There are only two other surviving species from this ancient lineage: one from Japan, and the hellbender salamander from the eastern United States. All of them are in decline, but the Chinese giant salamander is especially so.

In past surveys, it took an hour of searching to find one Japanese giant salamander, and two hours to find a hellbender. By contrast, it took Cunningham’s team 16 weeks to find each Chinese giant salamander. The team interviewed more than 2,800 people who live in what should be salamander habitat, and most hadn’t seen the animals for decades.

This tragedy is even greater than it first seems. Based on analyses of the salamanders’ DNA, the team thinks that it’s not just one species, but five. They all look superficially similar, but they’ve been evolving separately for between 4 and 10 million years. And now, all five of them face imminent extinction in the wild.

Until the 1970s, the salamander was common throughout China’s Qinling Mountains. Thanks

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