Tag Archives: salamanders

Episode 104: Tiger Salamanders

Thanks to Connor who suggested this week’s topic, tiger salamanders! Not only do we learn all about the Eastern tiger salamander and the banded tiger salamander, we also learn where asbestos comes from AND IT’S NOT EVEN LIKE I GOT OFF TOPIC, I SWEAR

The Eastern tiger salamander:

The barred tiger salamander:

A baby tiger salamander:


Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

This week we’ll learn about an animal suggested by listener Connor that’s been waiting on the ideas list for way too long. Thanks, Connor! Sorry it took me so long to get to your suggestion!

So, Connor suggested that we cover “tiger salamanders’ cannibalism and how salamanders were once believed to be fire-related.” That sentence gives us a lot to unpack.

First let’s find out what a tiger salamander is. It gets its name because it’s stripey, or at least has blotches that can look sort of like stripes. It may be yellow and black or green and black. It grows up to 14 inches long, or 36 cm, which is pretty darn big for a salamander. Smaller tiger salamanders mostly eat insects and worms, but the bigger ones will naturally eat bigger prey, including frogs.

Like all salamanders, the tiger salamander is an amphibian. That means it’s cold-blooded with a low metabolic rate, with delicate skin that needs to stay damp. Like other salamanders, it doesn’t have claws, it does have a tail, and its body is long compared to its short legs. Basically a salamander usually looks like a wet lizard. But salamanders actually have more in common with frogs than with lizards, since frogs are also amphibians.

While the tiger salamander can swim just fine, it spends most of its adult life on land. It catches insects by shooting its sticky tongue at them just like frogs do. And just like a frog, the tiger salamander’s eyes protrude like bumps on its head, and it retracts its eyeballs when it swallows to help force the food down its throat. This is fascinating, but you might want to take a moment to be glad you don’t have to do this every time you swallow a bite of food.

The tiger salamander, like most other amphibians, secretes mucus that helps its skin stay moist and tastes nasty to predators. The tiger salamander doesn’t appear to actually be toxic, though. It mostly lives in burrows it digs near water, and while it’s common throughout much of eastern North America, it’s not seen very often because it’s shy and because it prefers ponds in higher elevations such as mountains.

A female lays her eggs on the leaves of water plants in ponds or other standing water. The eggs hatch into larvae which have external gills and a fin that runs down its back and tail to help it swim. At first the larva looks a little bit like a tadpole, but it grows legs soon after hatching. As a larva, it eats aquatic insects and tiny freshwater crustaceans like amphipods. How soon it metamorphoses into an adult salamander depends on where it lives. Tiger salamanders that live in more northerly areas where summer is short will metamorphose quickly. Tiger salamanders that live in warmer climates stay larvae longer. And in areas where the water is better suited to gathering food than the land is, the larvae may not fully metamorphose at all and will live in the water their whole lives. The term for a fully adult salamander that still retains its external gills and lives in the water is neotene, and it’s pretty common in salamanders of various species.

The tiger salamander is actually closely related to the axolotl, more properly pronounced ash-alotl. I learned that from the Varmints! podcast. Most axolotls are neotenic. On the rare occasion that an axolotl metamorphoses into its adult form, it actually looks a lot like a tiger salamander.

Unfortunately, the tiger salamander carries diseases that can kill frogs, reptiles, fish, and even other amphibians, even though the tiger salamander is usually not affected. The tiger salamander is also a popular pet, but since many pet tiger salamanders were caught in the wild, be careful that you’re not introducing diseases that might kill your other amphibians, reptile, or fish pets. While the tiger salamander is doing just fine in the wild and isn’t protected, it’s always better to buy pets from people who bred the salamanders and can guarantee they’re disease free. Likewise, if you’re someone who likes to fish, don’t use tiger salamander larvae as bait. Researchers think this is the main way the diseases carried by tiger salamanders spread.

So all this information about tiger salamanders is interesting, but it’s also pretty normal for salamanders. What does Connor mean by cannibalism in tiger salamanders?

The tiger salamander we’ve just learned about is actually called the Eastern tiger salamander. Until recently the barred tiger salamander was considered a subspecies of the Eastern tiger salamander, although now it’s considered a separate species. It looks and acts pretty much just like the Eastern tiger salamander but it lives in the western areas of North America. The main difference between the two species is that the barred tiger salamander is not quite as big, and it isn’t as common. The adults are illegal to sell in most American states, although it’s legal to keep them as pets.

But there is one main difference about the barred tiger salamander, and it’s something that only happens in some populations, usually ones in dry areas where ponds are more likely to dry up and larvae need to metamorphose quickly as a result. A few weeks after they hatch, some of the larvae develop large teeth and wider heads. Then they start eating other tiger salamander larvae. Researchers have found that a cannibal tiger salamander won’t eat tiger salamanders it’s related to, and the hypothesis is that it recognizes the scent of its brothers and sisters.

Researchers think most tiger salamanders don’t become cannibals because doing so increases the risk that it will be affected by the diseases tiger salamanders carry. By eating salamanders that are competing for the same resources its siblings need to grow up quickly, the cannibal salamanders help their siblings and may sacrifice themselves by risking disease as a result.

Forget what I said about being glad you don’t have to retract your eyeballs every time you swallow. Just be glad you’re not a tiger salamander at all.

Connor also mentioned the old belief that salamanders lived in fire. How the heck did that belief come about? Salamanders are wet little amphibians that mostly live in water.

It’s been a belief for literally thousands of years. It’s mentioned in the Talmud, in Pliny the Elder’s writings, and in bestiaries. Where did it start?

The main hypothesis is that because some salamanders hibernate in rotting logs, the only time most people would see a salamander would be when they tossed firewood into a fire. The salamander, rudely awakened from its winter home, would slither out of the fire, protected from the heat for a very brief time by its damp skin. There’s actually a species of salamander common throughout Europe called the fire salamander. So that sounds plausible. Older legends refer to the salamander actually being able to put fires out with its cold body or breath. Since salamanders are cold-blooded and damp, they do feel cold to the touch even on relatively warm days.

One traditional writer thought all this was pish-posh, though. Marco Polo himself, who traveled widely in Asia starting in 1271, wrote, “Everybody must be aware that it can be no animal’s nature to live in fire.” He was right, of course. Nothing lives in fire. But by the time Marco Polo lived, there was a certain amount of confusion regarding a type of cloth that was fire-resistant. It was called salamander wool and was supposed to be woven from hairs harvested from salamanders—which is a real trick, considering only mammals have hair.

Marco Polo met a man from Turkey who procured the fibers that were called salamander wool. But they didn’t come from an animal at all. He had to dig for them. I’ll quote from a translation of Marco Polo’s writing:

“He said that the way they got them was by digging in that mountain till they found a certain vein. The substance of this vein was then taken and crushed, and when so treated it divides as it were into fibres of wool, which they set forth to dry. When dry, these fibres were pounded in a great copper mortar, and then washed, so as to remove all the earth and to leave only the fibres like fibres of wool. These were then spun, and made into napkins. When first made these napkins are not very white, but by putting them into the fire for a while they come out as white as snow. And so again whenever they become dirty they are bleached by being put in the fire.

“Now this, and nought else, is the truth about the Salamander, and the people of the country all say the same. Any other account of the matter is fabulous nonsense.”

This actually sounds even more confusing than fire salamanders. What the heck is this cloth, what are those fibers, are they really fireproof, and if so, why hasn’t anyone these days heard of it?

Well, we have, we just don’t realize it. That stuff is called asbestos.

I always thought asbestos was a modern material, but it’s natural, a type of silicate mineral that’s been mined for well over 4,000 years. It’s actually any of six different types of mineral that grow in fibrous crystals. Just like Marco Polo reported, after pounding and cleaning, you’re left with fibers that really are fire, heat, and electricity resistant. As a result, it became more and more common in the late 19th century when it was used in building insulation, electrical insulation, and even mixed with concrete. And just as Marco Polo reported, it was still spun into thread and woven into fabric that was often made into items used around the house, like hot pads for picking up pans from the oven, ironing board covers, and even artificial snow used for Christmas decorations.

Of course, we know now that breathing in bits of silica is really, really bad for the lungs. The dangers of working with asbestos had already started to be known as early as 1899, when asbestos miners started having lung problems and dying young. The more asbestos was studied, the more dangerous doctors realized it was—but since it was so useful, and the effects of asbestos damage on the lungs usually took years and years to manifest, businesses continued to ignore the warnings. Asbestos was even used in cigarette filters during the 1950s, as if smoking wasn’t already bad enough.

These days, most uses of asbestos have been banned around the world, but if you’ve seen those TV commercials asking if you or someone you know suffers from mesothelioma, and you might be entitled to compensation, that’s a disease caused by breathing in asbestos dust. Some industries still use asbestos.

It sounds like asbestos being called salamander wool was named not because people literally thought they were made from hairs harvested from salamanders but because asbestos cloth resisted fire and heat the way salamanders were supposed to. These days chefs use a really hot grill called a salamander to sear meats and other foods, which is named after the folkloric animal, but no one believes it has anything to do with real salamanders. At least, I hope not. Then again, there are pictures of salamanders in medieval bestiaries showing salamanders with hair, which argues that at least some people really truly believed that asbestos came from salamanders.

Because tiger salamanders are large and not endangered, they’re good subjects for study. Researchers have learned some surprising things by studying the behavior and physiology of tiger salamanders. For instance, salamanders in general have legs that haven’t changed that much from those of the first four-legged animals, or tetrapods. Researchers study the way tiger salamanders walk to learn more about how early tetrapods evolved. And yes, this research did involve filming tiger salamanders walking on a tiny treadmill.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.com. We’re on Twitter at strangebeasties and have a facebook page at facebook.com/strangeanimalspodcast. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or whatever platform you listen on. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 027: Creatures of the Deeps

This week is our six-month anniversary! To celebrate, we’ll learn about some of the creatures that live at the bottom of the Mariana Trench’s deepest section, Challenger Deep, as well as other animals who live in deep caves on land. We also learn what I will and will not do for a million dollars (hint: I will not implode in a bathysphere).

A xenophyophore IN THE GRIP OF A ROBOT

A snailfish from five miles down in the Mariana trench:

The Hades centipede. It’s not as big as it looks, honest.

The tiny but marvelous olm.

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

For this week’s episode, we’re going to find out what lives in the deepest, darkest places of the earth—places humans have barely glimpsed. We’re not just talking deep sea, we’re talking the abyssal depths.

Like onions and parfaits, the earth is made up of many layers. The core of the earth is a ball of nickel and iron surrounded by more nickel and iron. The outer core is molten metal, but the inner core, even though it’s even hotter than the outer core—as hot as the surface of the sun—has gone through the other side of liquid and is solid again. Surrounding the core, the earth’s mantle is a thick layer of rocks and minerals some 1900 miles deep, and on top of that is the crust of the earth, which doesn’t actually sound very appealing but that’s where we live and we know it’s really pretty, with trees and oceans and stuff on top of it. The upper part of the mantle is broken up into tectonic plates, which move around very slowly as the molten metals and rocks beneath them swirl around and get pushed up through cracks in the mantle.

Under the oceans, the crust of the earth is only around 3 miles thick. And in a few places, there are crevices that actually break entirely through the crust into the mantle below. The deepest crack in the sea floor is the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific. At its deepest part, a narrow valley called Challenger Deep, the crack extends seven miles into the earth.

The pressure at that depth is immense, over 1,000 times that at sea level. Animals down there can’t have calcium carbonate shells because the pressure dissolves the mineral. It’s almost completely dark except for bioluminescent animals, and the water is very cold, just above freezing.

The trench is crescent shaped and sits roughly between Japan to the north and Papua New Guinea to the south, and the Philippines to the west. It’s caused by the huge Pacific plate, which is pushing its way underneath the smaller Mariana plate, a process called subduction. But near that activity, another small plate, the Caroline plate, is subducting beneath the Pacific plate. Subduction around the edges of the Pacific plate is the source of the earthquakes, tsunamis, and active volcanos known as the Ring of Fire. Some researchers think there’s a more complicated reason for Mariana Trench and other especially deep trenches nearby, though. There seems to be a tear in the Caroline plate, which is deforming the Pacific Plate above it.

Challenger Deep is such a deep part of the ocean that we’ve barely seen any of it. The first expedition that got all the way down was in 1960, when the bathyscape Trieste reached the bottom of Challenger Deep. This wasn’t an unmanned probe, either. There were two guys in that thing, Jacque Piccard and Don Walsh, almost ten years before the moon landing, on a trip that was nearly as dangerous. They could see out through one tiny thick window with a light outside. The trip down took almost five hours, and when they were nearly at the bottom, one of the outer window panes cracked. They stayed on the bottom only about 20 minutes before releasing the weights and rising back to the surface.

The next expedition didn’t take place until 1995 and it was unmanned. The Kaiko could collect samples as well as record what was around it, and it made repeated descents into Challenger Deep until it was lost at sea in 2003. But it not only filmed and collected lots of fascinating deep-sea creatures, it also located a couple of wrecks and some new hydrothermal vents in shallower areas.

Another unmanned expedition, this one using a remotely operated vehicle called the Nereus, was designed specifically to explore Challenger Deep. It made its first descent in 2009, but in 2014 it imploded while diving in the Kermadec Trench off New Zealand. It imploded. It imploded. This thing that was built to withstand immense pressures imploded.

In 2012, rich movie-maker James Cameron reached the bottom of the Mariana Trench in the Deepsea Challenger. He spent nearly three hours on the bottom. Admittedly this was before the Nereus imploded but you could not get me into a bathysphere if you paid me a million dollars okay well maybe a million but I wouldn’t do it for a thousand. Maybe ten thousand. Anyway, the Deepsea Challenger is currently undergoing repairs after being damaged in a fire that broke out while it was being transported in a truck, which is just the most ridiculous thing to happen it’s almost sad. But it’s still better than imploding.

In addition to these expeditions, tethered cameras and microphones have been dropped into the trench over the years too. So what’s down there that deep? What have these expeditions found?

The first expedition didn’t see much, as it happens. As the bathyscape settled into the ooze at the bottom of the trench, sediment swirled up and just hung in the water around them, unmoving. The guys had to have been bitterly disappointed. But they did report seeing a foot-long flatfish and some shrimp, although the flatfish was more likely a sea cucumber.

There’s actually a lot of life down there in the depths, including amphipods a foot long, sea cucumbers, jellyfish, various kinds of worms, and bacterial mats that look like carpets. Mostly, though, there are Xenophyophores. They make big delicate shells on the ocean bottom, called tests, made from glued-together sand grains, minerals like lead and uranium, and anything else they can find, including their own poops. We don’t know a lot about them although they’re common in the deep sea all over the world. While they’re unicellular, they also appear to have multiple nuclei.

For the most part, organisms living at the bottom of the Challenger Deep are small, no more than a few inches long. This makes sense considering the immense water pressure and the nutrient-poor environment. There aren’t any fish living that deep, either. In 2014 a new species of snailfish was spotted swimming about five miles below the surface, a new record; it was white with broad fins and an eel-like tail. Snailfish are shaped sort of like tadpoles and depending on species, can be as small as two inches long or as long as two and a half feet. A shoal of Hadal snailfish were seen at nearly that depth in 2008 in the Japan Trench.

While there are a number of trenches in the Pacific, there aren’t very many deeps like Mariana Trench’s Challenger Deep—at least, not that we know of. The Sirena Deep was only discovered in 1997. It’s not far from Challenger Deep and is not much shallower. There are other deeps and trenches in the Pacific too. But like Challenger Deep, there aren’t any big animals found in the abyssal depths, although the other deeps haven’t been explored as much yet.

In 2016 and early 2017, NOAA, the U.S. Coast Guard, and Oregon State University dropped a titanium-encased ceramic hydrophone into Challenger Deep. To their surprise, it was noisy as heck down there. The hydrophone picked up the sounds of earthquakes, a typhoon passing over, ships, and whalesong—including the call of a whale researchers can’t identify. They think it’s a type of minke whale, but no one knows yet if it’s a known species we just haven’t heard before or a species completely new to science. For now the call is referred to as the biotwang, and this is what it sounds like.

[biotwang whale call]

But what about animals that live in deep places that aren’t underwater? It’s actually harder to explore land fissures than ocean trenches. Cave systems are hard to navigate, frequently extremely dangerous, and we don’t always know how deep the big ones go. The deepest cave in the world is Krubera Cave, also called Voronya Cave, in Georgia—and I mean the country of Georgia, not the American state. Georgia is a small country on the black sea between Turkey and Russia. So far it’s been measured as a mile and a third deep, but it’s certainly not fully explored. Cave divers keep pushing the explored depth farther and farther, although I do hope they’re careful.

We’ve found some interesting animals living far beneath the earth in caves. The deepest living animal ever found is a primitive insect called a springtail, which lives in Krubera cave and which was discovered in 2010. It’s pale, with no wings, six legs, long antennae, and no eyes. There are a whole lot of springtail species, from snow fleas to those tee-tiny gray bouncy bugs that live around the sink in my bathroom no matter how carefully I clean. All springtails like damp places, so it makes sense that Krubera cave has four different species including the deepest living one. They eat fungi and decomposing organic matter of all kinds. Other creatures new to science have been discovered in Krubera cave, including a new cave beetle and a transparent fish.

A new species of centipede was described in 2015 after it was discovered three-fourths of a mile deep in three different caves in Croatia. It’s called the Hades centipede. It has long antennae, leg claws, and a poisonous bite, but it’s only about an inch long so don’t panic. Also it lives its entire life in the depths of Croatian caves so you’re probably safe. There are only two centipedes that live exclusively in caves and the other one is named after Persephone, Hades’ bride. It was discovered in 1999.

A cave salamander called an olm, which in local folklore was once considered a baby dragon, was recently discovered 370 feet below ground in a subterranean lake, also in Croatia. It’s a fully aquatic salamander that only grows a few inches long. Its body is pale with pink gills. It has eyes, but they’re not fully developed and as it grows, they become covered with layers of skin. It can sense light but can’t otherwise see, but it does have well-developed electroreceptor skills, hearing, smell, and can also sense magnetic fields. It eats snails, insects, and small crustaceans and has very few natural predators.

In 1952 researchers created an artificial riverbed in a cave in France that recreates the olm’s natural habitat as closely as possible. The olms are fed and protected but not otherwise interacted with by humans. There are now over 400 olms in the cave, which is a good thing because in the wild, olms are increasingly threatened by pollution, habitat loss, and unscrupulous collectors who sell them on the pet trade black market.

Olms live a long, long time—probably 100 years or longer. Some individuals in the artificial riverbed are 60 years old and show no signs of old age. Researchers aren’t sure why the olm lives so long. We don’t really know a whole lot about the olm in general, really. They and the caves where they live are protected in Croatia.

There are a few places in the world where people have drilled down into the earth, usually by geologists checking for pockets of gas or water before mining operations start. In several South African gold mines, researchers found four new species of tiny bacteria-eating worms, called nematodes, living in water in boreholes a mile or more deep. After carefully checking to make sure the nematodes hadn’t been introduced into the water from mining operations, the researchers theorized the nematodes already lived in the rocks but that the boreholes created a perfect environment for them. Nematodes are well-known extremophiles, living everywhere from hot springs to the bellies of whales. They can withstand drought, freezing, and other extreme conditions by reverting to what’s called the dauer stage, where they basically put themselves in suspended animation until conditions improve.

The boreholes also turned up some other interesting creatures, including flatworms, segmented worms, and a type of crustacean. They’re all impossibly tiny, nearly microscopic.

If you go any deeper, though, the only living creatures you’ll find are bacteria and other microbes. In a way, though, that’s reassuring. The last thing we want to find when we’re poking around in the world’s deepest cracks is something huge that wants to eat us.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.com. We’re on Twitter at strangebeasties and have a facebook page at facebook.com/strangeanimalspodcast. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on iTunes or whatever platform you listen on. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way. Rewards include stickers and twice-monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 014: Giant Salamanders

In episode 14, we discuss the big three of giant salamanders–and some possible mystery relatives.

The Chinese giant salamander. An orange one. Enormous. Mostly harmless. Just wants to eat a snail.

The Japanese giant salamander:

The HELLBENDER reverb reverb reverb

The Pacific giant salamander. Not as giant but has an angry:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

This week we’re looking at giant salamanders. Yup.

Salamanders are amphibians. Think “wet lizards” or “skinny frogs with tails.” A lot of people think snakes are slimy, but they’re not. Snakes are reptiles and their scales are satiny smooth and dry. Amphibians don’t have scales and they do have slimy skin, which they need to keep moist.

Some salamanders are completely aquatic but most live at least part of their lives on land, usually in wet areas. When I was a kid, I used to like turning over rocks in the creek behind our house, because frequently I’d find a salamander underneath. I wouldn’t catch it, just look at it, which is what you should do if you find a salamander—partly because it’s not good to disturb a wild animal that’s just trying to live its life, and partly because salamanders secrete toxins through their skins. The toxins won’t kill you, but if you get any in your eyes or mouth you could be in for some unpleasant symptoms.

There are two species of salamander known to be venomous, in a way, but they don’t inject venom with special fangs. When the sharp-ribbed salamander is attacked, it pushes its pointed ribs through tubercules along its sides. The tubercules secrete toxins that coat the rib points, which then pierce right through the salamander’s skin and into its attacker.

There are hundreds of salamander species throughout the world, some of them tiny, most of them a few inches long [about 5 or 6 cm], but there are three that are much bigger than that. The biggest is the Chinese giant salamander. The biggest ever found was just shy of six feet long [two meters]. Six feet long! The closely related Japanese giant salamander is almost as big, some five feet long [1.5 meters].

There’s a third giant salamander right here in the southeastern United States where I live, and while at two and a half feet long [76 cm] it’s not nearly as long as its cousins, it has a much better name. The Chinese giant salamander’s local name is infant fish, because some of the sounds it makes remind people of babies crying, which is creepy as heck. The Japanese giant salamander is called the giant pepper fish, because when it’s disturbed it secretes a whitish mucus that smells like pepper. But the North American giant salamander? We call that thing the H E L L B E N D E R.

I did try to find audio of the Chinese giant salamander crying. I had no luck, which is probably a good thing actually, because it’s a distress call. I did find this awesome audio of a Pacific giant salamander. Despite the name giant in its name, it’s not very big compared to the other giants, only about a foot long at most [30 cm], but it does have a cute vocalization.

[Pacific giant salamander call]

(He’s so mad.)

The Chinese and Japanese giant salamanders are so closely related that they readily interbreed. We know that because some fool decided to introduce some Chinese salamanders into streams in Japan. Hellbenders are not as closely related to the Asian salamanders.

All three of the giant salamanders are endangered, mostly due to habitat loss and pollution. They like clean, swift-moving mountain streams with rocks of just the right size—not too big, not too small. But the Chinese salamanders are also considered a delicacy, so they’ve been overhunted as well. Poaching is a major issue, ironically to stock salamander farms. The adults breed readily in captivity, but farmers haven’t had much success getting captive-born individuals to breed, so they continue to capture adults from the wild.

Giant salamanders are fully aquatic, although they can and do get out of the water occasionally for short periods. All three have thick folds of skin along their sides, which increases their surface area, and that’s important because they breathe through their skins. Larval giant salamanders have gills, but when they mature they lose those gills. The hellbender may retain a gill slit but it no longer functions.

While giant salamanders do have a single lung, they don’t use it to breathe. They use it for buoyancy. They like fast-moving water because it’s well oxygenated. A salamander will also rock gently to increase the amount of water moving over its skin, and male salamanders will wave fresh water over their eggs. Males dig and defend the nests. In Japan, they’re called den-masters.

Giant salamanders are flattish in shape with broad bodies and wide heads. Their feet have stubby little toes. They eat fish, snails, crawdads, worms, insects, small mammals, snakes, frogs—basically anything they can catch. They snap up prey fast, sucking it in my creating a vacuum when they open their huge mouths. They range in color from slate gray to black to brownish with dapples. Occasionally an orangish or pink individual is discovered.

All the giant salamanders have poor eyesight, but they have a good sense of smell. In addition, the Chinese and Japanese giant salamanders have sensory cells along the sides of their bodies that detect vibrations in the water. The hellbender doesn’t have that kind of sensory cells as far as I’ve been able to find out, but it does have light sensitive cells on its body, especially the tail. This lets it know when its tail is safely hidden, rather than sticking out from under a rock.

Larval hellbenders look a lot like another large salamander in the area, called the mudpuppy or water dog. The mudpuppy can grow a bit over a foot in length [31 cm], but it retains its gills throughout its life. Don’t be fooled by fake hellbenders.

So those are the three giant salamanders in the world, but there are rumors of other giants in the streams and rivers of California. In the 1920s, an attorney named Frank L. Griffith, who was hunting in the area, spotted five salamanders in a lake in the Trinity Alps in northern California. The salamanders ranged in size between five and nine feet long [1.5 and 2.7 m]. He hooked one with a line, but he wasn’t strong enough to land it and it escaped. In the 1940s, animal handler Vern Harden claimed he’d seen eight-foot [2.4 m] salamanders in Hubbard Lake.

Thomas L. Rodgers, a biologist at Chico State College, conducted four expeditions to the Trinity Alps in 1948 in search of the giant. The expeditions didn’t find anything bigger than foot-long [30 cm] Pacific giant salamanders, but Rodgers suggested that the Trinity Alps giant might be a subspecies of the Pacific giant that grows to an enormous size, or might be a cryptobranchid like the eastern hellbender or the Asian giant salamanders.

In 1951, herpetologist George S. Myers published a paper about his own sighting. He said that in 1939 he was contacted by a commercial fisherman who had dredged up a two and a half foot [76 m] salamander in a catfish net from the Sacramento River. Myers described the salamander as dark brown with dull yellow spots, and said that it resembled the Chinese and Japanese giant salamanders but appeared to be a different species.

In 1960, Bigfoot hunter Tom Slick convinced an expedition looking for Bigfoot to hunt for the salamander too, with no luck. Also in 1960, Tom Rogers mounted another expedition, this time with some zoology professors and ten interested laymen. Again, they only found the foot-long Pacific giant salamander.

Rodgers decided he was wrong about the existence of a new giant salamander, and in 1962 denounced the previous sightings as misidentifications and hoaxes. More recently, a 1997 expedition led by Japanese-American writer Kyle Mizokami likewise came up with no sightings.

It’s not out of the realm of possibility that a giant salamander lives in the Trinity Alps and just hasn’t been found. It’s the right climate with the right conditions. And new salamanders are occasionally discovered in the United States. In 2009, a new species of lungless salamander was discovered in the Appalachian foothills. Yeah, that’s near where I live!

But that one is barely an inch long [2.5 cm]. It should be a little easier to spot a salamander longer than a grown man is tall, not to mention that two of the Trinity Alps giant salamander sightings report salamanders in lakes. If they’re cryptobranchids, they need running water to survive—streams or shallow rivers.

And as for the third sightings, the one where George Myers actually got a first-hand look at a giant salamander caught in the Sacramento River, there’s more to the story. Tom Rogers, the biologist who led five different expeditions to search for the salamander, also saw the Sacramento specimen. The fisherman had managed to keep it alive in his bathtub. Rogers identified it as a Chinese giant salamander, and in fact it turned out to be a lost pet named Benny that had escaped while being taken to Stockton Harbor by steamer.

If these were the only sightings of giant salamanders in North America that aren’t hellbenders, it wouldn’t be looking good for them. But we’re definitely not done. In his blog, zoologist Karl Shuker reports hearing from a woman who sighted a huge salamander in Redwood Park in Arcata, California in 2005. She described it as several feet long [1 meter] with a rounded head instead of flat like known giant salamanders, no skin folds along its sides, and reddish markings. She spotted it walking on land after a rain. Shuker suggests she might have seen an unusually large coastal giant salamander, which can reach almost a foot and a half in length [45 cm] and which she said her salamander resembled in many respects. Remember that Pacific giant salamander sound I played earlier? The coastal giant salamander is a type of Pacific giant salamander.

California isn’t the only state with a mystery giant salamander, though. Three other states have interesting reports, and all of them are pink.

Pink salamanders actually aren’t all that uncommon. Alibinism in salamanders is well known and not rare, and they frequently look pink due to blood vessels visible through their unpigmented skin.

In the early 1960s, biology student Mary Lou Richardson was bowhunting along Florida’s St. Johns River with her father and a friend. All three saw an animal the size of a donkey with a big flat head and a small neck. Other tourists saw the animal that same day, and local fishermen were familiar with it going back to 1955. It’s not clear from the description if the animal was a salamander or something else.

Then, on May 10, 1975, five people on a fishing trip on the St. Johns River saw a weird pink animal’s head and neck on the water. It was only 20 feet [6 m] from their boat and watched them for about eight seconds before diving again. One witness, Dorothy Abram, described it as having a head the size of a human’s with small horns like a snail’s. Another witness, Brenda Langley, also noted it had “this little jagged thing going down its back.” Presumably she meant serrations of some kind. The party also said the animal had large dark eyes and gills or gill-like flaps on either side of its head.

In Ohio, the first white settlers near Scippo Creek, called Catlick Creek Valley at the time, discovered what they called giant pink lizards living in the area. They were three to seven feet long [1 to 2.1 m] and lived in and around water. They also had moose-like horns, pretty big ones apparently. But after a drought followed by a devastating wildfire, by 1820 the pink lizards seemed to have died out.

And in South Carolina around 1928, nature writer Herbert Sass and his wife were boating on Goose Creek near Charleston when Sass saw something big under the water. He lifted it with an oar and although it almost immediately slipped back into the water, they were able to get a good look. Their description sounds a lot like a hellbender or other giant salamander, in this case as thick around as a man’s thigh and five or six feet long [1.5 to 2 m]. It was salmon pink and orange.

The St. Johns River monster might have been a manatee. The area where it was spotted is a manatee refuge and manatees have been responsible for other mystery animal sightings in the past. Then again, manatees don’t have snail horns, serrated backs, or gills, and known giant salamanders don’t either. It’s important to note too that in the 1975 sighting of the monster, dubbed Pinky because of course it was, witnesses described it as being dinosaur-like and said the skin appeared to be stretched so tightly over its head that the shape of the bones were visible. That doesn’t sound like either a manatee or a salamander, more like a reptile of some kind.

The Ohio and South Carolina sightings are much more interesting in regards to giant salamander sightings. Ohio is historically part of the hellbender’s range, and a population of hellbenders have recently been reintroduced there. Shuker suggests the horns described on the so-called pink lizards might actually have been branching external gills seen underwater. Most species of salamander lose their gills after they grow out of their larval stage, but not all, including mudpuppies. Mudpuppies aren’t as big as hellbenders, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t once a variety that grew much larger.

South Carolina is also part of the hellbender’s range, and Sass’s pink and orange animal might very well have been an exceptional large specimen. Sass himself called it a hellbender.

Even if none of these mystery salamanders are ever discovered, or if they turn out to be known animals, we still have hellbenders around, and the Chinese and Japanese giant salamanders too. The best thing we can do is keep their habitats as pristine as possible, since salamanders need clean streams to thrive. Next time you go hiking, pick up any trash you find and pack it out with you. The salamanders will thank you.

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Thanks for listening!