Five giant salamander species have been identified in China but they are all facing the imminent threat of extinction.
It has been discovered that the world’s largest amphibians, which weigh in at more than 60kg, are not one species but at least five.
Research published in the journal Current Biology suggests Chinese giant salamanders represent distinct species despite their similar appearances.
This is because the salamanders inhabit three primary rivers in China, and given they cannot move across the land, salamanders living in different river systems have had the opportunity to diverge over time into what should now be recognised as distinct species – a theory that is supported by genetic evidence.
"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," said Jing Che from the Kunming Institute of Zoology, Chinese Academy of Sciences. "This was not expected."
But the salamanders face extinction in the wild, due in no small part to demand for the amphibians as luxury food.
In a second study, Samuel Turvey from the Zoological Society of London found that populations of this once-widespread species are now critically depleted or extirpated across all surveyed areas of their range, and illegal poaching is widespread.
In fact, some of the five newly identified species may already be extinct in the wild.
"The overexploitation of these incredible animals for human consumption has had a catastrophic effect on their numbers in the wild over an amazingly short time span," Mr Turvey said.
"Unless coordinated conservation measures are put in place as a matter of urgency, the future of the world's largest amphibian is in serious jeopardy."
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