Thursday, November 3, 2011

I Met a Giant Japanese Salamander

Presumably because of the 5 Asian Animals on the Brink of Extinction post, one of the top keywords directing people to my blog is ‘giant salamander’. As an animal nerd this makes me pretty happy and reminds me of my encounter with giant salamanders at the Kyoto Zoo!  

 There weren’t supposed to be any animals on my Japan trip in May 2011 – just a few days exploring serene Kyoto, a ride on the Shinkansen bullet train, then a whirlwind tour of Tokyo. But it just so happened that the nearest subway station to our traditional Japanese accommodations in Kyoto, the Yachiyo Garden Ryokan, was also the station for the Kyoto Zoo and the station was plastered with cute pictures of their animals. Red pandas, chimps, mandrils…  and who’s that next to the hippo?

Japanese giant salamanders are not as endangered as their Chinese cousins and not quite as large – they reach up to 1.5 meters in length and the two specimens at the Kyoto Zoo were pretty close to that!  The Japanese name for them is Ōsanshōuo (オオサンショウウオ/大山椒)which translates to “giant pepper fish” because of the spicy odor they secrete when threatened!

Apparently the giant salamanders used to be hunted as a food source but are now protected by law – salamander sashimi, anyone?  The salamanders also appear in traditional Japanese art like this awesome woodblock print of a samuraifighting a giant salamander

While I was thrilled to see a giant salamander even if it was in captivity, the rest of the Kyoto Zoo was pretty depressing. The elephant was in a bare concrete enclosure with no enrichment items and the great apes were in a glass “monkey house” with trees painted on the back wall. Plus, not matter how much I banged on the glass, they wouldn’t look at me! (just kidding) After posing with the salamanders we got out of there ASAP…   Kyoto has much better offerings.


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