Last week I was in Japan looking for giant salamanders (Andrias japonicus), and for two days I stayed in the charming and bustling city of Hiroshima.
Visiting Hiroshima for the first time is a peculiar experience. As a 36 year-old who grew up in fear of nuclear Armageddon during the 1980s, the word Hiroshima evoked two frightening images for me: a mushroom cloud and the shattered dome of the one building that still stood after the attack. The human horrors that those images captured were so frightening that I experienced them as a feeling of deep fear at the bottom of my stomach.
The extraordinary creature that I was in Hiroshima to visit seems strangely relevant to my teenage picture of Hiroshima. It looks like the sort of terrifying mutation that all those 1950s sci-fi movies implied that the atomic age would unleash on us – a giant salamander, 100,000 times the weight of a normal salamander, with a bite that could take off a limb (or a finger at least).
But these salamanders are not mutants, created by a gamma ray burst in 1945. They are in fact ancient animals that have lived in the beautiful streams around Hiroshima for millennia.
The fear of nuclear Armageddon, thankfully, no longer haunts me, but as a person living through the biggest extinction crisis since the age of the dinosaurs, I still feel that nameless dread sometimes. It seems that humans simply can’t grasp that the biological systems that support the creatures that we are wiping out are also the ones that support us. And as our carelessness leads to the loss of more and more of the building blocks of ecosystems, we make our own future all the more precarious.
Reasons for Hope
But every now and then, I see a ray of hope, and the giant salamanders of Hiroshima are one of those rays.
Salamanders, for those of you who aren’t thinking about animals every day are amphibians, and amphibian species are being lost at a truly alarming rate – at present a third of all amphibian species are threatened with extinction.
Amphibians play a host of roles in an ecosystem, and from a human point of view, a key one is keeping insect populations in check – reducing the risk of insect-borne diseases. So if amphibian populations collapse, we may see an increase in human diseases.
A key reason for the decline in amphibian populations – along with human-induced habitat loss – is a fungus called Chytridiomycosis that can wipe out entire species, but recent research has shown that the Japanese giant salamander has lived with this fungus for hundreds of years without becoming ill.
So this extraordinary creature may hold a key to preventing the disease in other amphibians, which may in turn, help to protect humanity. Pretty cool.
VIDEO: Claude Gascon on the Giant Japanese Salamander
Claude is Executive VP, Projects + Science at Conservation International.
So as Japan prepares to host the Convention on Biological Diversity this coming fall – a major conference that brings nations together to try to slow or stop the loss of their plants and animals – we should make sure that we think about this weird looking, cold-blooded beast, and consider what unquantifiable benefits all of the other species at risk may end up offering us as well.
Rob McNeil is the Director for Media Strategy at Conservation International. For more on this, check out the two great BBC News pieces from that Japan trip: “Close Encounters with Japan’s “living fossil” and Giant Salamander: Human Threat, Human Promise.