The Chinese Giant Salamander is an impressive animal. Weighing over 100 pounds with a length of over 5 feet, these amphibians are the largest in the world. These salamanders diverged from other amphibians approximately 170 million years ago and were once abundant in the central, eastern, and southern regions of China. Unfortunately, over the past 30 years their numbers have been quickly dwindling and they are now listed as “critically endangered” on the IUCN Red List.
National Geographic lists several reasons for this, including habitat loss, poaching, and over-harvesting meat for luxury meals. Previous attempts to curb population loss have been focused on encouraging giant salamander farmers to release some of their animals into the wild to boost numbers, but recent genetic research has uncovered new information about these unique creatures that may change the way that they are protected.
It has long been thought that there was only one species of Chinese Giant Salamander—Andrias davidianus. However, in September 2019 a study was published in the journal of Ecology and Evolution that suggests there are actually three genetically distinct species. These species were thought to have evolved when mountain formations caused them to be geographically isolated from one another and begin to adapt to differing environments in China.
So why does this matter? If each species has developed to thrive in certain regions, then the former approach of releasing farmed salamanders may not be as helpful as conservationists previously hoped. BBC News quotes Melissa Marr of the Natural History Museum explaining that, “These findings come at a time where urgent interventions are required to save Chinese giant salamanders in the wild.” This timely discovery will allow for changes in policy that account for the genetic lineage of each salamander. By considering each species individually, proper decisions can be made about where and when to release these animals to help increase wild populations in a sustainable way.
Conservation genetics is a rapidly evolving field of study that allows policymakers and resource managers to make more informed decisions regarding wildlife. DNA sequencing and evolutionary analyses can lead to many more discoveries that will help other populations in peril, much like the Chinese Giant Salamanders.
What are some other ways we could use science to help endangered species?
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