China's Giant Salamander, Reported to Be 200, Probably Isn't Close

Amphibian probably not a Jane Austen contemporary.


We’re all for salamanders that make headlines — the elusive Hellbender Salamander very well be the best thing about Arkansas not related to the state’s innovations in health care policy. But we’ll have to temper our excitement about this giant Chinese salamander found in a cave in the middle of December just a bit. It’s an incredible scientific discovery, but it isn’t 200 years old, as was widely reported by English-language websites.

The salamander came from a remote part of Chongqing, and according to China’s state-run news website, experts said it might be 200 years old. (The operative phrase is “可能”, which is translated more or less as “could be.”) That is implausibly old — and there’s really no way to tell short of cutting it open and counting the rings. (Not that you’d want to — these suckers are incredibly rare, which is why it was moved from the cave into zoologist’s hands.) The problem is that salamanders, in general, ooze off this mortal coil around the age of 50. The Guinness record for the most aged of the lot sits at a ripe 52 for a pair of Japanese salamanders.

If the salamander is 200 years old, it beats the oldest verified living vertebrate by a decade. That record-holder was a tortoise, a well-documented member of species known for their Methuselahian lifespans. There is — it’s worth noting — a species of salamander that possibly outlives the Japanese salamander — the olm, or “human fish” — but it is a tiny, pale creature and the biological reasons for its longevity are unknown.

Bottom line: We don’t know anything about this giant salamander except that he’s an exceptional salamander and that he doesn’t need a superlative to be cool.

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