With individuals weighing in at more than 140 pounds, the critically endangered Chinese giant salamander is well known as the world’s largest amphibian. But researchers reporting in the journal Current Biology on May 21 now find that those giant salamanders aren’t one species, but five, and possibly as many as eight. The bad news as highlighted by another report appearing in the same issue is that all of the salamanders — once thought to occur widely across China — now face the imminent threat of extinction in the wild, due in no small part to demand for the amphibians as luxury food.
“We were not surprised to discover more than one species, as an earlier study suggested, but the extent of diversity — perhaps up to eight species — uncovered by the analyses sat us back in our chairs,” says Jing Che from the Kunming Institute of Zoology, Chinese Academy of Sciences. “This was not expected.”
The researchers were surprised to learn just how much movement of salamanders has already occurred due to human intervention. Salamander farms have sought to “maximize variation” by exchanging salamanders from distant areas, without realizing they are in fact distinct species, Che explains. As a result, she says, wild populations may now be at risk of becoming locally maladapted due to hybridization across species boundaries.
One problem with speciation being such a conceptual mess and so poorly understood is, who knows if hybridization is a problem or a partial solution?
While the harvesting of wild salamanders is already prohibited, the findings show that farming practices and existing conservation activities that treat all salamander populations as a single species are potentially doing great damage, the researchers say. Paper 1 (open access) / Paper 2 (paywall) – Fang Yan, Jingcai Lü, Baolin Zhang, Zhiyong Yuan, Haipeng Zhao, Song Huang, Gang Wei, Xue Mi, Dahu Zou, Wei Xu, Shu Chen, Jie Wang, Feng Xie, Minyao Wu, Hanbin Xiao, Zhiqiang Liang, Jieqiong Jin, Shifang Wu, CunShuan Xu, Benjamin Tapley, Samuel T. Turvey, Theodore J. Papenfuss, Andrew A. Cunningham, Robert W. Murphy, Yaping Zhang, Jing Che. The Chinese giant salamander exemplifies the hidden extinction of cryptic species. Current Biology, 2018; 28 (10): R590 DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2018.04.004/ Samuel T. Turvey, Shu Chen, Benjamin Tapley, Gang Wei, Feng Xie, Fang Yan, Jian Yang, Zhiqiang Liang, Haifeng Tian, Minyao Wu, Sumio Okada, Jie Wang, Jingcai Lü, Feng Zhou, Sarah K. Papworth, Jay Redbond, Thomas Brown, Jing Che, Andrew A. Cunningham. Imminent extinction in the wild of the world’s largest amphibian. Current Biology, 2018; 28 (10): R592 DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2018.04.005 More.
No question the poachers are doing great damage but how do we know that the hybridizers are? It would be good to bring the concept of speciation into the 21st century, bad news as that might be for schoolbook Darwinism.
See also: Monkey hybrids are monkeying with the biological species concept
Elephant family tree needs a rethink?
Speciation ain’t what it used to be. Neither is certainty about evolution.
New butterfly has 46 chromosomes, like a human, not the expected 68, like a close relative
DNA: Giraffes are four separate species?
More mammal species than we thought? But what defines a mammal species?
Nothing says “Darwin snob” like indifference to the mess that the entire concept of speciation is in