Giant salamanders and giant salamanders products are in use for medical purpose in many countries across the Indian ocean. Stories about this animal were gathered and written by students. They are all part of a pedagogical project, funded by the National University of Singapore and the Université de Paris. The Bestiary site is a work-in-progress and a participatory educational tool, representing animals whose products or body parts are used to promote health and healing.

The Giant Salamander

A Story by Seet Sin Yuan Janice

The Chinese giant salamander (Andrias davidianus) is one of the largest salamanders and, by extension, amphibians in the world. Considered a living fossil, their family dates back 170 million years. These giant salamanders feature in a number of Chinese myths, legends, and folktales. Most famously, the symbols of yin and yang are believed to be two of these giant amphibians intertwined in harmony. There is also conjecture over their mythical resistance to heat and fire. Multiple nations – not just China – believe in the salamander’s affinity with the element of fire. For instance, Europe has been noted for having early visitors to China where they were introduced to fire-proof cloth made from salamander hair. 

The giant salamander is also referred to as the “baby fish” in Chinese due to their call resembling the cry of an infant’s. These giant salamanders were not just significant in Chinese folklore, but also Chinese history. Today, they are considered prized luxury food and an important component of traditional Chinese medicine, but this sentiment has dated back to ancient dynasties. Their mucus, skin, meat, organs and even bones are subject to the Chinese belief that they are able to treat multiple degenerative diseases, as well as restore one’s qi. The stomach is believed to promote digestion, and its powdered skin can be combined with tung oil to treat burns.

The price that a giant salamander could fetch for these multitude of health benefits ultimately led to unethical practices that dwindled its wild population. Increasingly becoming rare in the wild, the Chinese giant salamanders are now listed as ‘critically endangered’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. This is due to the over-harvesting for the salamander farming industry. The less accessible these giant salamanders become, the more destructive the methods to obtain them, such as using dynamites and electrofishing. Outside of human causes, their habitats are also whittling away due to urbanisation. These farms cannot easily be managed, however, as many are main contributors to the local economy.

The Chinese giant salamanders are a slice of ancient history embedded in Chinese culture that are slowly eroding away due to the callous over-poaching of humans for claimed ‘health benefits’ and thus its exorbitant prices. It is interesting how this species, despite its significance to Chinese folklore, is being treated as a form of profit rather than with respect.

 

 

Value in Asian medicine

​​The Chinese Giant Salamander has medicinal capabilities as understood by both traditional Chinese medicine practice as well as modern medicine. While it has significant medicinal value in both these fields, there have been no documented cases of diseases contracted by humans from the consumption of these amphibians, although significant risks exist.

In traditional Chinese medicine, the Chinese Giant Salamander is a versatile commodity. Not only is it considered a delicious and luxurious meal, it is believed that eating its meat nourishes the Qi and hones one’s wisdom, while curing multiple diseases such as anaemia, dysentery, malaria, and neurasthenia, or other skin and heart conditions (He et al., 2020). Its organs, bones, and skin are considered nutritional as well, and much like the benefits of consuming the giant salamander’s flesh, these parts can also mitigate the effects of diseases as well. The Chinese giant salamander’s stomach, in particular, has been used as a remedy for children’s indigestion in the past. Its skin is often dried and turned into powder to be used with tung oil for burn or scald treatment (He et al., 2020). Interviews conducted with residents in rural China also reveal the belief in the giant salamander’s use in traditional Chinese medicine. They associated the giant salamander with the healing of the human skin via the salamander’s own skin or mucus and improvement of one’s looks (Turvey et al., 2020). Overall, no one part of its biology is spared when it comes to traditional Chinese medicinal belief in its capability to heal.

While the claims of its benefits in traditional Chinese medicine are largely unfounded, modern medicine has indeed uncovered and proven alternative medicinal and nutritional value. A study on the giant salamander’s nutritional utilities concluded that its muscles and organs, when consumed, do supplement human health, as it is rich in nutrients such as high-quality protein, amino and fatty acids, as well as vital minerals and vitamins the human body is unable to produce (He et al., 2020). Furthermore, beyond direct consumption, modern medicine has also unearthed medical use for its mucus, for its potential to serve as an alternative to stitches and bandages. The Chinese giant salamander’s mucus is effectively a bioadhesive that works to close wounds easily while promoting rapid healing, while leaving minimal scarring and inflammation. This makes it a formidable bio-alternative in wound remedies, though there is still risk of human allergy to its application. (Deng et al., 2019).

It is no wonder that the Chinese giant salamander is such a desired delicacy in light of its multiple health benefits for the human body. Despite its popularity in China, there have been no documented cases of viruses, diseases, or infections contracted from the consumption of giant salamanders. It would appear that this specific species in the Andrias family is entirely harmless to humans – where its Japanese cousin exudes toxic and pungent mucus, the Chinese giant salamander’s mucus is considered safely consumable. However, there have been multiple cases of often-lethal disease or bacterial infection outbreaks within the Chinese giant salamander farms themselves (Cunningham et al., 2016). These outbreaks are so numerous and widespread, they have been attributed as one of the major causes behind the Chinese giant salamander’s drive towards extinction. One of the more common and deadlier viruses to infect these farms is the ranavirus infection, which causes the salamanders to suffer from heavy haemorrhage (Chen et al., 2018).

While there has been no documentation of humans contracting any disease from these salamanders, the sheer extensiveness of the infections these salamanders suffer in their farms, coupled with their popularity as a dish in China, may eventually prove a problem for their human consumers if left unchecked.

Chinese giant salamander in Prague Zoo, 2017, Zoo Praha.
References
Deng, J., Tang, Y., Zhang, Q., Wang, C., Liao, M., Ji, P., Song, J., Luo, G., Chen, L., Ran, X., Wei, Z., Zheng, L., Dang, R., Liu, X., Zhang, H., Zhang, Y. S., Zhang, X., & Tan, H. (2019). “A bioinspired medical adhesive derived from skin secretion of andrias davidianus for wound healing”. Advanced Functional Materials, 29 (31), 1809110-n/a. 
Chen, Z., Li, T., Gao, X., Wang, C., & Zhang, Q. (2018). “Protective immunity induced by DNA vaccination against ranavirus infection in Chinese giant salamander andrias davidianus”. Viruses, 10 (2), 52. 
Cunningham, A., Turvey, S., Zhou, F., Meredith, H., Guan, W., Liu, X., Sun, C., Wang, Z., & Wu, M. (2016). “Development of the Chinese giant salamander andrias davidianus farming industry in Shaanxi Province, China: conservation threats and opportunities”. Oryx, 50 (2), 265-273.
He, D., Zhu, W., Zeng, W., Lin, J., Ji, Y., Wang, Y., Zhang, C., Lu, Y., Zhao, D., Su, N., & Xing, X. (2018). “Nutritional and medicinal characteristics of Chinese giant salamander (Andrias davidianus) for applications in healthcare industry by artificial cultivation: A review”. Food Science and Human Wellness, 7 (1), 1-10. 
Turvey, S., Chen, S., Tapley, B., Liang, Z., Wei, G., Yang, J., Wang, J., Wu, M., Redbond, J., Brown, T., & Cunningham, A. (2021). “From dirty to delicacy? Changing exploitation in China threatens the world’s largest amphibians”. People and Nature (Hoboken, N.J.), 3 (2), 446-456.