Tetrapod Zoology



Aww, look at that cute little face, those piggy little, opaque eyes, that wrinkled skin. I just know that you want a little refresher on giant salamanders, so – accompanied with new photos taken at the SMNK in Karlsruhe (by Markus Bühler; thanks) – here’s a substantially augmented chunk of text that originally appeared here back in January 2008…

Giant salamanders (or cryptobranchids) are grouped with hynobiids (Asiatic salamanders) in the clade Cryptobranchoidea (or Cryptobranchiformes). There are only three extant species: the North American Hellbender Cryptobranchus alleganiensis, the Chinese giant salamander Andrias davidianus and the Japanese giant salamander A. japonicus. All are aquatic salamanders of fast-flowing, well-oxygenated water (but this wasn’t the case for all fossil species, some of which apparently inhabited large ponds and lakes (Estes 1981, Tempfer 2004)). All possess dorsoventrally flattened bodies and flat heads with rounded snouts. Gills are absent in adults and their lungs apparently don’t function in respiration, so all gas exchange occurs across the extensively folded, wrinkled skin. Eyelids are absent (a sure sign of aquatic habits in a caudate). The following text is Andrias-heavy, though some of the generalisations apply to hellbenders too.


While the name currently in use for Asian giant salamanders (and their fossil relatives) is Andrias, the equally old Megalobatrachus has also been used a lot. Both were created by the same author (J. J. v. Tschudi), in the same year (1837), in the same published work, but Andrias was traditionally restricted to fossils and Megalobatrachus was traditionally restricted to the living species. Westphal (1958) argued that both should be synonymised, with Andrias taking priority. Some authors have regarded Andrias giant salamanders and hellbenders as part of the same genus (in part because they’ve regarded Andrias as paraphyletic with respect to Cryptobranchus), and have therefore used the name Cryptobranchus Leuckart, 1821 for the whole lot (Naylor 1981). More recent work has found both Andrias and Cryptobranchus to be monophyletic; fossils indicate that they had diverged by the Paleocene.

‘Mystery’ giant salamanders of California and Hong Kong

As any aficionado of the cryptozoological literature knows, there are some claimed occurrences of modern day giant salamanders that are very interesting, if real.

In 1939 or 1940, Stanford University’s George S. Myers was invited to examine a live Andrias kept as a pet by a commercial fisherman. Said fisherman claimed to have captured the animal in a catfish trap in the Sacramento River. Myers considered the possibility that the animal might belong to an unknown, native Californian species: he thought that the brownish (rather than grey) ground colour and presence of large, well defined, yellowish spots on the dorsum made it look different from Chinese and Japanese giant salamanders (Myers 1951). In fact, both features are present in Chinese and Japanese giant salamanders, something not noted by the cryptozoologists who have discussed this case. Myers also noted, however, that the animal might have originated as an escape: in 1936 or 1937, a San Francisco firm had supposedly imported a consignment of giant salamanders. In a brief report that smacks of ‘better late than never’, Chico State College’s Thomas L. Rodgers (1962) stated that he had examined the Sacramento River salamander two days after it had been captured. According to Rodgers, it belonged to an “odd-fish fancier” called Wong Hong and was named Benny. Rodgers regarded this as the end of the mystery, and ‘escaped pet’ is the generally accepted explanation today.


As Rodgers (1962) and others have explained, however, additional people claimed to see and even capture gigantic salamanders in the Californian Trinity Alps. An animal handler called Vern Harden said that he saw “a dozen” of these animals in Hubbard Lake in 1960, one of which he hooked and (allegedly) found to be 2.5 m long. During the 1920s, Frank L. Griffith reported seeing a group of giant salamanders in New River, the biggest of which was 2.75 m long (Rodgers 1962, Coleman 1997, Coleman & Huyghe 2003). Most recently, sightings from 2002 and 2005 were mentioned by cryptozoologist John Kirk.

As is so often the case with purported mystery animals, the possibility that northern California might be home to an undiscovered native amphibian approaching or exceeding a metre or two or three in length must rank as pretty low on the believability scale. Several qualified herpetologists have been interested enough to investigate the reports and, so far, have ended up empty handed. Rodgers suggested that, if the stories were true, they might be based on sightings of large Dicamptodon (Pacific giant salamanders), though individuals larger than just 30 cm would be exceptional [the above reconstruction of a Californian giant salamander – look at the scale! – is by Harry Trumbore and comes from Coleman & Huyghe (2003). Yeah, too many fingers]. After writing all this I discovered that Lord Geekington covered Californian giant salamanders in rather more depth back in March 2007.

An entirely different ‘mystery giant salamander’ has been reported from Hong Kong where one was captured in the Botanical Gardens, Mid Levels, Hong Kong Island in 1922. This specimen was taken to London Zoo where it lived for many years; photos of it can be seen in zoo guide books published during the 1930s. In 1924, Edward G. Boulenger described it as representing the distinct species Megalobatrachus sligoi: it was supposedly distinct from the others on account of its smoother skin and flatter head (Boulenger 1924). It’s been stated that additional specimens were later captured, though the details on these are extremely hazy. It’s generally accepted today that Sligo’s salamander is synonymous with A. davidianus, though I’ve been unable to discover whether the individual(s) concerned were possible natives or the result of introduction (let me know if you have more information); the species is missing from field guides to the Hong Kong herpetofauna (e.g., Karsen et al. 1986) (thanks to Jon Downes, CFZ, for pers. comms.) [A. japonicus skeleton shown below].


Little known is that Chinese giant salamanders have also been found on Taiwan: these were almost definitely the result of introduction (people have moved Chinese giant salamanders around quite a bit: see below). Their presence in Vladivostok (in far eastern Russia) has also been rumoured.

Giant size, and the fossil ones

Giant salamanders are famous for, well, being giant, with record-holding specimens of the Chinese giant salamander reaching 1.8 m and 65 kg. However, some fossil species were bigger (read on). Some authors state that the Japanese species is bigger than the Chinese one, but fail to provide the measurements to back this up.


Having mentioned fossil Andrias salamanders, the most famous of them all is A. scheuchzeri from the Upper Miocene of Oeningen, Germany [shown here, by Haplochromis, from wikipedia]. The holotype skeleton – discovered in or prior to 1725 – was first assumed to be that of a man killed in the biblical flood.

It seems incredible today that any person (especially a learned one) could be dumb enough to think that a salamander skeleton should be best interpreted as that of a human, but I suppose I have the benefit of neither regarding biblical mythology as real, nor of being alive in the 1700s. Swiss scientist Johann Jakob Scheuchzer labelled the fossil Homo diluvii testis in his publications of 1726 and 1731. Cuvier realised in about 1822 that it was actually a salamander, Friedrich Holl gave it the proper binomial Salamandra scheuchzeri in 1831, and the new generic name Andrias was given to the species in 1837.

Numerous additional specimens of this salamander are known from Oligocene, Miocene and Pliocene sediments of Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic. Some were described as representing additional taxa, such as A. tschudii Meyer, 1859 and Zaissanurus belajaevaei Tschernov, 1959. A. scheuchzeri is said to be osteologically indistinguishable from living A. davidianus and Estes (1981) treated the latter as a synonym of the former. This opinion has never caught on: Darrel Frost notes in Amphibian Species of the World that it should be better known among neontologists. If it’s valid, the giant salamander populations of eastern China are sorry relicts of a formerly widespread species. Fossils suggest that these salamanders were also present on Japan in the Pleistocene (Estes 1981), in which case A. davidianus/A. scheuchzeri and A. japonicus were once sympatric.


Throughout this article I’ve (generally) been careful not to refer to Andrias salamanders as ‘Asian giant salamanders’ or even (in view of European A. scheuchzeri fossils) as ‘Old World giant salamanders’. This is because a species from Upper Miocene sediments of Nebraska, named in 1917 for a partial dentary, also seems to be a member of this genus. It’s A. matthewi.

[Zdeněk Burian’s reconstruction of A. scheuchzeri is shown here. As always, it looks great, but it’s not accurate: Andrias salamanders are strictly aquatic].

A large number of additional Miocene bones have been referred to A. matthewi, some because they closely resemble the corresponding bones of Old World Andrias species, others because they were found in association with dentary bones resembling the holotype (it’s proportionally slender and rather straight compared to the dentaries of other Andrias salamanders, suggesting that this species had a wedge-shaped, rather than rounded, snout). Like A. scheuchzeri, A. matthewi seems to have inhabited still water ponds and lakes, and not fast-flowing streams and such (Estes 1981). Naylor (1981) described two enormous vertebrae (hyperbole intentional, but we are talking about salamanders here) from Saskatchewan that he referred to A. matthewi. With estimated total centrum lengths of 30 and 40 mm, the larger of these bones indicates a total length for the animal of 2.3 m

Some sources refer to A. matthewi as Cryptobranchus matthewi. This isn’t necessarily because it was deemed closer to hellbenders than to Old World giant salamanders; rather – as mentioned above – it’s based on Naylor’s (1981) lumping of all Andrias species into Cryptobranchus. An Eocene salamander from Wyoming, Piceoerpeton willwoodensis Meszoely, 1967, might be a stem-cryptobranchid (as might other fossil salamanders, some from the Cretaceous), and fossil hellbender species are known too.

Den-masters, breeding burrows, polygyny and male clutch-care


Andrias salamanders grow continuously after maturity: I know this claim is made about many tetrapods, but it seems to have been actually demonstrated for both hellbenders and Japanese giant salamanders. It means that members of any breeding population can vary substantially in size; a consequence is that small males can be ‘sneakers’ that successfully mate with females while avoiding the aggressive attention of larger, territory-holding males (Kawamichi & Ueda 1998). The cloaca protrudes in breeding males, enabling them to be sexed by eye [A. japonicus skull shown in adjacent image].

During the breeding season, Andrias salamanders species build long, horizontal mud burrows (as much as 1.5 m long) below the water line. The males that do this – dubbed ‘den-masters’ by Kawamichi & Ueda (1998) – are the longest and heaviest individuals in their habitats. They lay in wait in the burrows, emerging to attack other males that come into the territory. Some males quickly flee, but others stay and fight, and many individuals (as many as 17, perhaps more) may congregate outside the burrow and aim to get inside and mate with visiting females. I knocked up the terrible cartoon below to illustrate a few salient features of Andrias breeding behaviour.


Little known is that Andrias has particularly vicious teeth and can inflict massive wounds: during fights males frequently sever digits, limbs, and bits of tails of rivals, and massive fatal slices across the neck – sometimes resulting in decapitation – are apparently not uncommon. A male Japanese giant salamander 30 cm long lost in a fight to a much larger (c. twice as large) den-master; the latter then ate the former. Outside the breeding season, they use these teeth to capture and subdue frogs, fish, crustaceans, insects and (occasionally) small mammals.

Visiting females enter the burrows, and emerge at a reduced weight (indicating successful spawning: they produce strings of 400-600 eggs). They sometimes indulge in a bit of egg cannibalism while in the den-master’s burrow, evidently snacking on the efforts of other females. The den-master then stays at the nest until the eggs have hatched (about 40-50 days after spawning). Obviously, the bigger the male, the better he is at defending the clutches from predators. Juveniles stay in the larval stage for four or five years (reaching about 20 cm in total length), and take about ten years to reach adulthood.

Also little known of Andrias species is that they exude a foul smell which has been partially likened to “the rankest public urinal crossed with that of stale sweat” (Brazil 1997, p. 64).

Variation in Andrias: low in Japan, weird in China


A low level of genetic variation has been reported for the Japanese giant salamander (Matsui & Hayashi 1992): this might be due to their sedentary behaviour and a mating system that involves nest-guarding and polygyny (conceivably, this strategy could mean that a few males might be responsible for re-stocking a given region after environmental disturbance). A population bottleneck resulting from end-Pleistocene decline might also be partly responsible (Matsui et al. 2008). Chinese giant salamanders exhibit more variation (with a population in Huangshan being particularly distinct). What’s interesting is that the observed variation among Chinese giant salamanders doesn’t match what you might predict given the drainage patterns of the relevant rivers. Accordingly, the distribution of populations might be the result of human translocations (Murphy et al. 2000). This means that any original phylogeographical pattern has all but been destroyed. I’d rather have interspecific hybrid giant salamanders than no giant salamanders at all, but these efforts have not been mindful of the original local genetic patterns [adjacent 1887 illustration of a Japanese giant salamander from wikipedia].

And, the bad news…

The bad news is that these amazing animals – particularly the Chinese species – are critically endangered thanks to habitat degradation and loss, and also to human hunting. Yes, people EAT these animals, with their flesh selling for as much as US$100 per kg. Literally 1000s of kg of giant salamander flesh was harvested from Chinese provinces in decades past – as much as 15,000 kg per year from Hunan, for example. Unsurprisingly, there have been attempts to farm the animals, but little seems to be known about how successful (or otherwise) these ventures were.

Mass die-offs have been reported due to pollution (in 1986, 46 Japanese giant salamanders died after illegal dumping of oil). The declining hellbenders of the Ozarks are known to be infected by both the amphibian-killing chytrid fungus Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd) and the flesh-eating bacterium Citrobacter freundii, though as yet there’s no indication (to my knowledge) that Asian giant salamanders are affected by either organism. Also worth keeping in mind is that giant salamanders are sensitive to water-warming and other forms of disturbance. This was demonstrated by the case in October 2010 where 15 captive animals – kept at an exhibition in Shanghai – died “as a result of the hot weather and noisy environment”.

Mark-recapture studies of Japanese giant salamanders have shown that, even in areas with apparently healthy populations of large adults, successful recruitment of larvae to the adult population is very low, mostly because stream modification is destroying both spawning regions and larval habitats (Okada et al. 2008). There is loads more information on the conservation status and biology of the Chinese giant salamander here on the EDGE site (EDGE = Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered).


Amazingly, this article started life as ‘here are some photos of a giant salamander’. Oh well… I did always plan to cover these salamanders at some point, and better late than never. For more on salamanders at Tet Zoo, see the ‘group overview’ articles here…

And for more in-depth looks at particular clades and species, see…

And for more on the Global Amphibian Crisis, see…

Refs – –

Brazil, M. 1997. Mission massive. BBC Wildlife 15 (4), 62-67.

Boulenger, E. G. 1924. On a new giant salamander, living in the Society’s Gardens. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London 1924, 173-174.

Coleman, L. 1997. Promises of giants. Fortean Times 103, 43.

– . & Huyghe, P. 2003. The Field Guide to Lake Monsters, Sea Serpents, and Other Mystery Denizens of the Deep. Tarcher/Penguin, New York.

Estes, R. 1981. Handbuch der Paläoherpetologie. Teil 2. Gymnophiona, Caudata. Gustav Fischer Verlag, Stuttgart.

Karsen, S. J., Lau, M. W.-n. & Bogadek, A. 1986. Hong Kong Amphibians and Reptiles. Urban Council, Hong Kong.

Kawamichi, T., & Ueda, H. (1998). Spawning at Nests of Extra-Large Males in the Giant Salamander Andrias japonicus Journal of Herpetology, 32 (1) DOI: 10.2307/1565495

Matsui, M. & Hayashi, T. 1992. Genetic uniformity in the Japanese giant salamander, Andrias japonicus. Copeia 1992, 232-235.

– ., Tominaga, A., Liu, W.-z. & Tanaka-Ueno, T. 2008. Reduced genetic variation in the Japanese giant salamander, Andrias japonicus (Amphibia: Caudata). Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 49, 318-326.

Murphy, R. W., Fu, J., Upton, D. E., de Lemas, T. & Zhao, E.-M. 2000. Genetic variability among endangered Chinese giant salamanders, Andrias davidianus. Molecular Ecology 9, 1539-1547.

Myers, G. S. 1951. Asiatic giant salamander caught in the Sacramento River, and an exotic skink near San Francisco. Copeia 1951, 179-180.

Naylor, B. G. 1981. Cryptobranchid salamanders from the Paleocene and Miocene of Saskatchewan. Copeia 1981, 76-86.

Okada, S., Utsunomiya, T., Okada, T., Felix, Z. I. & Ito, F. 2008. Characteristics of Japanese giant salamander (Andrias japonicus) populations in two small tributary streams in Hiroshima Prefecture, western Honshu, Japan. Herpetological Conservation and Biology 3, 192-202.

Rodgers, T. L. 1962. Report of giant salamanders in California. Copeia 1962, 646-647.

Tempfer, P. M. 2004. Andrias scheuchzeri (Caudata: Crytobranchidae) aus der obermiozänen (MN7/8) Fundstelle Mataschen/steiermark. Joannea Geol. Paläont. 5. 257-268.

Westphal, F. 1958. Die Tertiären und Rezenten Eurasiatischen Risensalamander (genus Andrias, Urodela, Amphibia). Palaeontographica 110, 20-92.


  1. #1 Cameron
    December 3, 2010

    Yes, people EAT these animals

    People will eat anything, especially if it’s endangered and thus an expensive delicacy. East Asia seems to have a lot of heinous examples, but it’s not like westerners are at all exempt – there’s actually a market for lion meat in the US…

  2. #2 Jon Downes
    December 3, 2010

    I would love to be able to say that there was any evidence suggesting that a) was/is a distinct species and b) is/was endemic to Hong Kong. Sadly, all evidence points to it being an introduced specimen with unusual colouration.

    There are, however, enough endemic HK herps to prove of interest to anyone visiting the former British colony..

  3. #3 Rory
    December 3, 2010

    “Amazingly, this article started life as ‘here are some photos of a giant salamander’.”

    I don’t think any of us are complaining. An excellent and fascinting article Darren! As always.

    Truly tragic that the world’s largest extant amphibians are heading on the road to extinction though. I suppose it can only be expected
    Never mind the Giant Panda-Save the Giant Salamanders!
    (besides, they’re cooler and they’ve got their niche better worked out)

  4. #4 Charles
    December 3, 2010

    In quickly reading this article I initially completely misinterpreted “sexed by eye”.

  5. #5 Hai~Ren
    December 3, 2010

    Apparently, the Chinese giant salamander has also been introduced to Japanese rivers, where it has been hybridising its native cousin; the larger Chinese males displace the Japanese males and end up becoming den-masters, mating with Japanese females. (One news article discussing this problem can be found here). (Don’t know if it’ll trigger the spam filter)

  6. #6 Sordes
    December 3, 2010

    Really a great post Darren!
    Given the fact how much photos there are online which shows unusually coloured (mainly hypomelanistic) giant salamanders, which seems to come from commercial breeding farms, I think it doesn´t work that bad to breed them in captivity.
    The sizes of Andrias matthewi is really incredible. At this length they must have had a weight of over 115 kg (I took a 126 cm and 19 kg specimen from the zoo of Hokkaido as comparison, but this one was already 55 years old, and perhaps a younger and somewhat healthier one could be a bit stockier).
    But seriously, HOW can people eat something which looks on a dinner plate like Jabba the Hutt?

  7. #7 Hai~Ren
    December 3, 2010

    Here is another article that mentions how hybridisation with the Chinese giant salamander is threatening the Japanese giant salamander. Of course, the greatest threat to the survival of the Japanese giant salamander appears to be loss of suitable habitats.

  8. #8 Mike Keesey
    December 3, 2010

    I knocked up the terrible cartoon below to illustrate a few salient features of Andrias breeding behaviour.

    Actually, that’s an adorable cartoon. Great expressions.

    (“Knocked up”? Was that a pun?)

  9. #9 Paul White
    December 3, 2010

    that fisherman may have had a neotenic tiger; they get *huge* (I’ve seen 20″). I have no idea why neotenics reach larger sizes than regulars but they do. I’ve thought of trying to keep/breed some neotenic tigers just because they’re so…freakish.

  10. #10 Paul
    December 3, 2010

    Off topic but at last there is a modern version of the toad found sealed in a stone.


  11. #11 Gunnar
    December 3, 2010

    I like that there exists slimy man-sized things on Earth that can bite each others’ heads off.

  12. #12 pough
    December 4, 2010

    A couple of giant salamander related videos…

    1. The Japanese are starting to alter their rivers to help the salamanders:

    2. The Smithsonian is making attempts to breed them:

    They’re awesome.

  13. #13 Tim Morris
    December 4, 2010

    I heard from someone that the tatzelwurm has been theorised to be a relictual miocene Andrias species, but I guess this is unlikely?

    What about the “giant pink salamanders”?

  14. #14 Tim Morris
    December 4, 2010

    My first truly memorable zoo experience was the aquarium complex at Taronga Zoo (now closed, boo!). They had a whole array of fish and other marine and freshwater animals, but two fascinated me most of all. First was a mudskipper, which I had done a project on in kindergarten, secondly was the Japanese Giant Salamander.

    It was the first time I had seen a tailed amphibian, and what an experience! He was huge, as far as I could tell from my 8 year old stature. I got upset when I had to leave to see other parts of the zoo.

  15. #15 David Marjanović
    December 4, 2010

    More recent work has found both Andrias and Cryptobranchus to be monophyletic; fossils indicate that they had diverged by the Paleocene.

    How reliable are these identifications? When I burrowed through the literature on that in 2006, I got the impression it was all very tentative, and no phylogenetic analyses had ever been done.

    I heard from someone that the tatzelwurm has been theorised to be a relictual miocene Andrias species, but I guess this is unlikely?

    Yes, because Andrias doesn’t leave the water and walk around in the mountains, let alone on its forelimbs alone.

  16. #16 Darren Naish
    December 4, 2010

    David (comment 15): if you’re questioning the validity of the Paleocene record, I was mostly thinking of Cryptobranchus saskatchewanensis Naylor, 1981 (named for a partial dentary). The material isn’t great, but it looks more like a hellbender jaw than an Andrias one (in part because the medial groove runs all to the way to the symphysis, rather than petering out well posterior). It is certainly appropriate to be sceptical about the identification, however.

  17. #17 Vladimir Dinets
    December 4, 2010

    As far as I know, some tatzelwurm descriptions match Andrias pretty closely.
    Some people claim that giant salamanders survived in Lithuania and Ukraine well into the Middle Ages. Sigismund fon Herberstein, the envoy of the Holy Roman Emperor to Lithuania, described “giwoites” – 1 m long snake-like creatures with 4 short legs and fat, slimy black bodies – that were considered sacred by locals. Russian and Ukrainian languages have a special word “yascher” that means a large reptile or amphibian, and crude images of such creatures (always with sharp teeth) are common in ancient Russian art.

  18. #18 Jerzy
    December 4, 2010

    East Europe has fascinating mythology, with dragons, Irish Elk-like deer and yeti-like wild men.

    But of course, such creatures would leave behind their bones.

    Only serpent king wearing a crown is real. 😉

  19. #19 Joe
    December 4, 2010

    Very interesting post, had no idea that fights between males could be that violent!

    Darren, I have to thank you. I had to do a essay on evidence for diet on marine reptiles for uni and your articles (particularly on the jurassic gutters and Henodus being a potential filter feeder) were fascinating and a huge help.

    Great blog and keep up the great work!

  20. #20 Vladimir Dinets
    December 4, 2010

    Lack of paleo record is never a strong argument 🙂 A small relict population is unlikely to leave many bones, especially if the animal is considered sacred and is not hunted, so there are no remains in kitchen leftovers. Post-glacial history of Russian fauna is not known as well as it should be: the fact that wood bison had survived in SW Siberia until the 17th century wasn’t known until about 20 years ago.

  21. #21 Tim Morris
    December 4, 2010

    David: The “2 forgelegs” tatzelwurm myths are most likely based on the typical northern european worm-dragon myths, the kind of dragon with 2 forelegs is simply called a “Lindworm”, so it’s a variant on that.

    Jerzy: I’m sorry, but when people have an attitude like that towards cryptozoology, simply dismissing it for a bunch of standard reasons, all it does is discourage people.

  22. #22 John Scanlon, FCD
    December 5, 2010

    Tim M, that would have been the first live non-anuran lissamphibian I ever saw, also. When Taronga closed the old aquarium (late 70s or early 80s) it lived on in the reptile house and may be there still (it’s about 20 years since I was a really regular visitor there).

  23. #23 Dartian
    December 5, 2010


    It seems incredible today that any person (especially a learned one) could be dumb enough to think that a salamander skeleton should be best interpreted as that of a human, but I suppose I have the benefit of neither regarding biblical mythology as real, nor of being alive in the 1700s.

    Specifically, you/we have the benefit of knowing that similar giant salamanders exist today; 18th Century Europeans did not have that knowledge. And, in fairness, it should be stated that even before Cuvier, some naturalists had their doubts about Scheuchzer’s fossil being a fossil human. For example, Scheuchzer’s countryman, the Swiss naturalist Johannes Gessner, suggested in 1758 that ‘Homo diluvii testis‘ was actually a fossil fish (which was still wrong, but it was at least arguably a step in the right direction).

    Cuvier realised in about 1822 that it was actually a salamander

    Are you sure about the year? I think it was a bit earlier than that.


    wood bison had survived in SW Siberia until the 17th century

    Do you really mean wood bison Bison bison athabascae (and not wisent Bison bonasus)?

  24. #24 David Marjanović
    December 5, 2010

    The material isn’t great, but it looks more like a hellbender jaw than an Andrias one (in part because the medial groove runs all to the way to the symphysis, rather than petering out well posterior).

    One of these two conditions almost has to be plesiomorphic.

    1 m long snake-like creatures with 4 short legs and fat, slimy black bodies

    That’s not a tatzelwurm. 😐

    Russian and Ukrainian languages have a special word “yascher” that means a large reptile or amphibian, and crude images of such creatures (always with sharp teeth) are common in ancient Russian art.

    Now that is interesting! That finally explains (to me) what ящерица (“lizard”) is a diminutive of!

    It’s not limited to Russian and Ukrainian. The Polish word for lizard, jaszczurka, is another diminutive of the same word. (szcz is pronounced шч and corresponds to щ.)

    However, Czech uses unmodified ještěr for “lizard”. So maybe that is in fact the original meaning, and the diminutives in the other languages just reflect the fact that lizards are small.

    Only [the] serpent king wearing a crown is real. 😉

    <jumping with joy>

    🙂 I found him maybe 20 years ago in a book of legends! 🙂 Der Schlangenkönig looks like the letter Š. 🙂

  25. #25 Darren Naish
    December 5, 2010

    Wow, such interesting discussion. The suggestion that the Tatzelwurm might be based on sightings of a wayward population of Andrias is familiar thanks to Ulrich Magin’s suggestion of 1986. He pictured an Austrian tombstone that depicted two large, salamander-shaped ‘tatzelwurms’ (Magin 1986): supposedly, they had killed a local farmer. It had never occurred to me that the various lizard-like creatures of Russian and Ukrainian lore might be anything to do with Andrias, but I have heard that tatzelwurm-like creatures were supposed to live in the Altai Mountains. In view of the former presence throughout Europe of large Andrias salamanders, their possible persistence is a very interesting possibility.

    On distinguishing hellbender and Andrias lower jaw fossils (see David’s comment 24), the hellbender condition (where the medial groove extends to the symphysis) is the derived one: in other salamanders, the groove does not extend as far anteriorly (I just checked with hynobiids, prosirenids, batrachosauroidids, scapherpetontids and sirenids).

    Ref – –

    Magin, U. 1986. European Dragons: the Tatzelwurm. Pursuit 19 (1), 16-22.

  26. #26 Vladimir Dinets
    December 5, 2010

    Dartian: yes, B. b. athabascae. There is now a reintroduction program there.
    David: The problem with large herps of Russian/Ukrainian lore is that there’s a lot of marginally credible stories, but also plenty of incredible ones. For example, official Russian chronicles mention an invasion of crocodiles (“korkadil beasts”) in 1582, when these beasts came out of rivers and ate a lot of people in Dnepr basin.
    “Ящер” (Yascher) toponims are mostly centered in Upper Dnepr Novgorod areas, where tales of huge herps persist to this day.

  27. #27 Vladimir Dinets
    December 5, 2010

    Here’s an image of “fierce korkadil beast” from a Russian church near the city of Vladimir, built in 1156 AD: http://pics.livejournal.com/ilion_skiv/pic/0000a565/s320x240

  28. #28 Sordes
    December 5, 2010

    An additional note to Dartian´s last comment:
    Gesner identified the bones of Andrias scheuchzeri as bones of the european wels catfish Silurus glanis, whose skeleton and especially the head actually well fits in size and shape those of the fossil salamander.

    It is also really very unprobable, that there is any relation between the Tatzelwurm and Andrias. Not only that this creatures are nearly never described in any association with water, they also resemble in shape and behavior much more a skink-like creature, a bit like a blue-tongue-lizard lacking hind legs. It is also interesting that those description often (not always) depict an unusally stocky animal, at least for a reptile.
    Some years ago I sculpted a small model of a tatzelwurm which I photographed in a way which should make it looking a bit like an old photograph:
    It´s actually probably too slender and elongated, so I sculpted also another version with a much plumper and stockier body.

  29. #29 Sordes
    December 5, 2010

    Here is a photo of my smaller tatzelwurm model (around 10 cm long), which comes very close to the eyewitness-descriptions:
    And a drawing for a logo I in which I included two tatzelwurms:

  30. #30 Tim Morris
    December 5, 2010

    Well, I wasnt suggesting that the Tatzelwurm WAS Andrias, I was simply saying that there may be confusion between sightings of anrias and of the “real” tatzelwurm. They would most probably be 2 separate cryptids, if we are fortunate enough that they exist.

    Also, the Taronga Zoo aquarium closed in the early 90’s, it is now part of the southern oceans complex, which consists of sealions, furseals, penguins, and of course leopard seals.

    The actual salamander that I saw may have died, or perhaps he was just taken off display, I dont remember. I did ask someone about it, but the answer has gone fuzzy.

  31. #31 Dartian
    December 6, 2010


    yes, B. b. athabascae

    Remarkable. Could I have the original reference(s), please?

  32. #32 Samantha Vimes
    December 6, 2010

    How can such a large creature get enough air through its skin? Is it that the clear running water has a lot of oxygen dissolved, so that there’s more available than one would expect? Really slow metabolisms?

  33. #33 Hai~Ren
    December 6, 2010

    Did a Google search for “wood bison” and Siberia, and came up with this article, which contained some very interesting information about the possibility of Bison bison in Eurasia.

    A northern form of small-horned bison, similar to wood bison, became extinct in eastern Siberia by the late Holocene (van Zyll de Jong 1993). The taxonomy of this form is not well defined.

    In summary: It appears that a short-horned form of bison separate from the wisent, and apparently morphologically similar to wood bison, survived in eastern Eurasia into the Holocene, with remains found in association with Neolithic and post-Neolithic archaeological sites, and petroglyphs dating to 2,000 years ago apparently portraying bison.

    These are the pertinent links as stated in the article. And yes, a lot of them are in Russian.

    Archipov, N.D. 1989. Drevnye Kul’tury Iakutii. Izdatel,stvo, Yakutsk.

    Ermolova N.M. 1978.Teriofauna doliny Angary v pozdnem antropogene. Novosibirsk: Nauka, 220 pp.

    Flerov, C.C. 1979. Systematics and Evolution. In European bison. Morphology, systematics, evolution, ecology. Edited by V.E. Sokolov, Nauka Publishers, Moscow, pp. 9-127. (in Russian)

    Lazarev P.A., Boeskorov G.G., Tomskaya A.I. 1998. Mlekopitauschie Antropogena Yakutii. .Yakutsk, Yakutskii nauchnyi tsentr,, Sibirskoe otdelenie Rossiiskoi Akademii Nauk. Edited by Yu.V.Labutin

    Rusanov, B.S. 1975. Iskapaemye bizony Iakutii. Iakutskoe Knizhnoe Izdatel’stvo, Yakutsk.

    van Zyll de Jong, C.G. 1986. A systematic study of recent bison, with particular consideration of the wood bison. Nat. Mus. Nat. Sci. Publ. in Nat. Sci. No. 6. 69pp.

    van Zyll de Jong. 1993. Origin and recent geographic variation of recent North American bison. Alberta 3(2): 21-35.

    Vereschagin N.K. and Baryshnikov G.F. 1985. Vymiranie mlekopitauschih v chetvertichnom periode Severnoi Evrazii. Trudy Zoologicheskogo Instituta,v. 131, pp. 3-38. (cited in Lazarev et al. 1998).

  34. #34 Darren Naish
    December 6, 2010

    Whenever Wood bison are discussed I feel compelled to mention the possibility that they are not really a taxonomic/phylogenetic entity, but rather an ecomorph that arises whenever Bison bison populations become sedentary and forest-dwelling. Anyway, the original descriptions and illustrations of Wood bison are – so Geist (1991) argued – so vague that it’s very difficult to be sure that the original concept of the animal was really any different from the migratory, plains-dwelling bison; our ‘modern’ idea of what Wood bison are meant to look like seems to result from a selective picking and choosing of historical sources and morphological characters. For extensive discussion see…

    Geist, V. 1991. Phantom subspecies: the wood bison, Bison bisonathabascae” Rhoads 1897, is not a valid taxon, but an ecotype. Arctic 44, 283–300.

    Of course, not everyone agrees…

    Stephenson, R. O., Gerlach, S. C., Guthrie, R. D., Harington, C. R., Mills, R. O. & Hare, G. 2001. Wood bison in late Holocene Alaska and adjacent Canada: paleontological, archaeological, and historical records. In Gerlach, S. C. & Murray, M. S. (eds) People and Wildlife in Northern North Amrica: Essays in Honor of R. Dale Guthrie. BAR International Series, pp. 125-159.

    Incidentally, North America may once have been home to a ‘mountain bison’ as well. Methinks this and more would better go in an article devoted to bison…

  35. #35 Dartian
    December 6, 2010


    It appears that a short-horned form of bison separate from the wisent, and apparently morphologically similar to wood bison, survived in eastern Eurasia into the Holocene

    Thanks, but that article says that bison might have persisted in eastern Siberia until about 1,100-1,200 years ago; Vladimir said that they persisted in SW Siberia until the 17th century.

  36. #36 Tommy Tyrberg
    December 6, 2010

    It might also be worth noting that Andrias (more specifically Andrias scheuchzeri) is also the “hero” of Karel Capeks satirical science fiction novel War with the Newts (Válka s mloky in the original Czech) from 1936. A lot of animals have figured in SF stories over the years, but this is the only case I can think of where salamanders are involved.

  37. #37 Darren Naish
    December 6, 2010

    There are also the Salaman of Brian Stableford’s Wildeblood’s Empire. As depicted by Barlowe, they are essentially big, bipedal salamanders with prehensile hands.

  38. #38 David Marjanović
    December 6, 2010

    On distinguishing hellbender and Andrias lower jaw fossils (see David’s comment 24), the hellbender condition (where the medial groove extends to the symphysis) is the derived one: in other salamanders, the groove does not extend as far anteriorly (I just checked with hynobiids, prosirenids, batrachosauroidids, scapherpetontids and sirenids).

    Wow! Thank you!

    Incidentally, North America may once have been home to a ‘mountain bison’ as well. Methinks this and more would better go in an article devoted to bison…

    Temnospondyls first!!!

  39. #39 Vladimir Dinets
    December 6, 2010

    [from Darren: sorry, delayed by spam filter]

    Unfortunately, all sources are in Russian. Russian Wiki has an extensive article “Reintroduction of wood bison in Siberia”:
    It lists a few sources, including on 11th century remains in Lake Baikal area, and talks about the “Pleistocene Park” project currently ongoing in Yakutia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pleistocene_Park).
    17th century Altai records are historical, not paleontological. I couldn’t find anything online, and it’s been 16 years since I’ve read those papers – as far as I remember, they were based on Siberian Cossack accounts. The Altai reintroduction is supposed to take place at Cherginsky Wisent Center, but they are constantly struggling to survive due to lack of funding.

  40. #40 Raymond
    December 6, 2010

    “Incidentally, North America may once have been home to a ‘mountain bison’ as well. Methinks this and more would better go in an article devoted to bison…”

    I know you aren’t referring to the “shrub-oxen” (musk-oxen relatives) but to the odd pre-columbian “aurochsen”/”cattle” fossils occasionally found in Western North American Montane deposits. Some of them are as recent as 4,000 YBP.

  41. #41 Jerzy
    December 7, 2010

    Well, important is that bison finally got to Yakutia.

    Now one can check first-hand if reintroduction succeeds and effect of herbivores on tundra. Basing on similar projects, I think that bison survive (unless wiped out by poachers).

  42. #42 Sordes
    December 7, 2010

    Raymond, do you know if there is anything online about this bovines? I am highly interested in holocene megafauna extinctions, and and I have never heard about such a creature before. Interestingly I learned only some days ago, that Bison antiquus also survived into early holocene, with some fossils being only around 9000 years old.

  43. #43 Vladimir Dinets
    December 7, 2010

    Jerzy: They might be able to create some steppe-like areas (actually, there are already some steppes on S slopes in parts of Yakutia, even in areas with no herbivores), but if they can’t, it wouldn’t prove anything as they don’t have mammoths.

  44. #44 Raymond
    December 8, 2010


    Their used to be a site called “Fauna Map” out of the university of Indiana. It is down now I think, since I can’t access. Heck, haven’t seen it in years. It had anomalies like horses and chickens as well as the “cattle”.

    Given what we know of New World Horses, (They apparently survived in the Yukon until 6,000 BP based on recovered DNA samples in soil) that is not too surprising. The chooks were likely brouhgt over by various pre-Columbian Asian explorers. The “cattle” often recovered in Colorado may well be the strange montane bison.

    Vladimer, the Sergei Zimov project is already a success. The addition of the various herbivores he wishes to add will only increase the stability of inherently unstable “mammoth steppe” (grins). The project homepage had dozens of photos both ground level and aerial the conclusively demonstrated the potential of megaherbivores in reconstructing the Man-Made Bog Tundras back into a Mosaic Steppe. Mammoths would be welcomed, but it is the vast herds of artiodactyls and equines that would (and are)make(ing) the most difference.

    Plus, the dry Steppe would prevent AGW on a huge scale. water-logged tundra will deliver heat deep into the permafrost. A dry Steppe will arrest summer heat within the top 3 inches to 3 feet, preventing the deep permafrost from melting.

  45. #45 Tommy Tyrberg
    December 8, 2010

    As for “mountain bison” there is subfossil and anecdotal evidence that there was a sparse population of bison over much of the Great Basin, but they were apparently quickly wiped out when horse-riding and related bison-hunting techniques spread from the midwest prairies shortly before europeans arrived.

  46. #46 Graham King
    December 8, 2010

    Re Scheuchzer and his ‘Homo diluvii testis’ fossil, I have wondered whether there were subtler nuances to this naming. Did he fully and literally believe that this was a human skeleton? That would require great ignorance of anatomy or an imagination receptive to the idea of very different anatomies of antediluvian ‘man’.
    I do wonder whether there may have been some wry jeu d’esprit in his naming it so; or perhaps a knowing jest at the expense of locals he considered devoutly gullible. Perhaps no deception was intended but the fossil was adopted for didactic purposes as a ‘lookalike’ ready-made illustration from nature pressed into service. Maybe it was seen as being a sign and a wonder, impressed in stone like Moses’ tablets of the commandments; a divine message, some kind of pointed reminder of the biblical Flood epic (a warning to contemporaries to watch how they behaved?)

    As comparison, I point to the anachronistic clothing and artifacts so often portrayed in stained glass windows, and the stylised toy-like non-perspective views of buildings in woodcuts. These may not mean that the makers really believed those portrayals to be true-to-life in those details; but they all served a purpose, conveying meaning within the representational conventions of their day.

    It would be interesting to view a sample of Scheuchzer’s and contemporaries’ comments on the fossil.

  47. #47 Graham King
    December 8, 2010

    But re the creatures themselves: as you say, cute faces! Also… terrifying.

  48. #48 Darren Naish
    December 8, 2010

    In his 1726 text, Scheuchzer described the specimen as the “sorrowful skeleton of an old sinner”, also referring to it as one of several “relics of that accursed race that perished in the Flood”. His comments on the salamander shouldn’t be seen in isolation; when he was writing, a debate raged over whether fossils were the remains of animals that had died in the Noachian flood. Scheuchzer chose to argue that this was indeed the case, thereby reversing his earlier opinion (published in 1702) that fossils were mere “sports of nature” somehow generated within sediments.

  49. #49 Vladimir Dinets
    December 8, 2010

    Raymond: I have to admit I haven’t been following the PP project as closely as I should have. Perhaps once they have all their planned species in place, I should organize a trip there for all interested TetZoo readers.

  50. #50 kris
    December 9, 2010

    Does it make me a bad person to think the facial expression of the vanquished male is really adorable?

  51. #51 Dartian
    December 9, 2010


    In his 1726 text, Scheuchzer described the specimen as the “sorrowful skeleton of an old sinner”, also referring to it as one of several “relics of that accursed race that perished in the Flood”. His comments on the salamander shouldn’t be seen in isolation; when he was writing, a debate raged over whether fossils were the remains of animals that had died in the Noachian flood.

    1726 is the same year that Johann Beringer published his infamous Lithographiæ Wirceburgensis. So yeah, in those days the science of paleontology was still very much in its infancy.

  52. #52 Sordes
    December 9, 2010

    Raymond and Tommy, thank you for this additional information. It´s great that once again a tetzoo-blogpost has lead to a highly interesting discussion about something completely different from the original topic.

  53. #53 Robert Kolk
    December 9, 2010

    If you ever happen to visit Haarlem in The Netherlands, don’t forget to drop by Teyler’s Museum. They still have the original Scheuchzer find on display.

  54. #54 Dale Drinnon
    May 13, 2011

    Re: Number 25, Andrias and Tatzelwurms, and including at the Altai.

    You are referring to my old CFZ blog wherein I identified some engraved representations of “dragons” at the Altai as looking like Tatzelwurms using Ulrich Magin’s Andrias identification. I also mentioned other supposed occurances of Andrias as Water-Monsters in Russia, around the Baltic Nations, in Canada and in other parts of the Northern Temperate zone. I have subsequently mentioned much more on the same subject at other places.

    In a statistical analysis of Tatzelwurm sightings I found that the four-legged, Andrias-designed creatures predominate slightly over the two-legged reports numerically. However I have more recently modified my results to imply there are two different species and that the fourlegged kinds are found in lakes and streams, rarely coming ashore and possibly also breeding in streams in caves, and then again the twolegged kinds which are found more commonly to the South, including Spain and Italy, and which are terrestrial burrowers. I shall probably be posting that at the Frontiers of Zoology blog over the weekend, but currently there is a problem with Blogger which has been delaying posts. But soon.


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