8 – The European Giant Salamander, Andrias ludificatio
The European Giant Salamander has an unusual history. Readers may be aware that giant salamander species are found in Japan; Andrias japonicas, in China; Andrias davidianus, and North America; Cryptobranchus alleganiensis. It seems odd that Europe, which spans similar latitudes and experiences broadly similar weather patterns, lacks a similar species. This, however, isn’t as much of a mystery as once thought, as a recent paper (An Andrias sp. in Early-Modern Europe; Nature) sets out the evidence that a giant salamander species did, until recently, inhabit Europe, including Britain. Which is pretty awesome.
There is no point in me setting out all the evidence for the presence of Andrias ludificatio in Europe as I would essentially be parroting the article mentioned above. Also, Europe is a little out of the scope of this series. I will, however, summarise briefly some points from the paper that I found particularly enjoyable. The report contains a vast collection of historical records that, with little doubt, refer to giant salamanders. However, the vast majority of the records are in a language other than English, so I am forced to rely on the provided translations – I wonder if any bias can slip in during translation? The records pale, really, considering that two historical specimens exist. One is of an adult and measures 1.23 m (but was probably longer in life), and was preserved with lavish coatings of varnish. This was found in storage in a small church in Poland in 1996, but is thought to be at least three hundred years old.
The other specimen is of a juvenile (measuring approx 30cm) and is preserved in formaldehyde. It has been in the collection of the Slovak Historical Collection since 1748, and had never been formally identified until ‘The present author [of the paper mentioned above] stumbled across it whilst cataloguing olms’ (Sallipa, 2013).
These specimens provided ample genetic data to prove that both these specimens were of the same species, but were distinct from other giant salamander species – though they clustered closer to both the Chinese and Japanese Giant Salamanders than the North American Hellbender, the basis for including it in the Andrias genus.
So, there is solid evidence that a giant salamander occurred in continental Europe – but what about the UK? No physical specimens exist, unfortunately, but there are some fascinating written records (spelling and some grammar has been modernised for ease of understanding).
In 1706, the vicar of Dunsop Bridge (in present day Lancashire) wrote in the church records:
‘Two local men of late did bring forth from the river a monstrous fish as long almost as a man, in bigness around the middle as much as the bigness of a man’s thigh. The mouth is the breadth of a man’s hand and the eyes are of insignificance. Most strange are its four hands like a child. Surely a sour omen, it was put to death’ (Sallipa, 2013)
In 1648, nobleman Charles Chodmonley was visiting Glenridding, a village on the edge of Ullswater, the second-largest lake in the Lake District. He wrote;
‘The local fisherman provided two young ewts, which I preserved in brandy. They are much larger than any other I have seen before, but I am assured that they can grow much larger. I inquired into the possibility of a full-grown ewt being procured, but was informed that they are not as much met with as they once were.’ (Sallipa, 2013)
Unfortunately these brandy-preserved ‘ewts’ appear not to have survived.
The final record comes from the tiny village of Tindale in Cumbria, 1634. Once again from the pen of the parish priest:
‘A limb-ed serpent was captured in the eel-trap of Jon Mosely. It was brought into the village. It appeared expired, but wriggled with restless vitality when placed in the trough. Nothing of its like has been seen before. It survived in the trough 8 days, until bitten by a horse.’ (Sallipa, 2013)
Certainly not overwhelming evidence, by any means. But taken hand in hand with the recent physical discoveries from Europe, it certainly is tantalising. It is interesting to note that in the record of Charles Chodmonley it appears that mature ‘ewts’ were becoming rarer in even three centuries ago. Japanese and Chinese Salamanders are both suffering declines at present due to a myriad of factors, including over fishing/collection. Perhaps overfishing had the same effect a few centuries earlier in Europe?
I hope all our readers enjoy the rest of April.
Sallipa, R. (2013) An Andrias sp. in Early-Modern Europe, Nature