Tracking California's Monster Salamander
California's Trinity Alps are a mountain range in a part of the state barely even known to most of its residents. Tucked in between the Cascades to the east and the redwood trees of the California Coastal Range to the west, they're where the climate transitions from coastal fog to the high Alpine wilderness. Hidden among its glaciers and granite are creeks which flow down through fern-choked gullies and then to rivers lined with redwoods, and some say that these creeks hide a rarely-seen denizen. They call it the California Giant Salamander, a beast many times the size of any others found in the state, in fact the size of an adult human. Could it be that such a huge animal, known mainly from a few old stories, could be hiding in the streams right now, waiting to snap at the next larva to float past?
The more zoologically conversant among you are probably jumping up and down right now, tearing your hair and rending your garments, shouting "But California already has a giant salamander!" and you would be correct. It is called — cunningly enough — the California Giant Salamander (Dicamptodon ensatus). It reaches a maximum size of about 30cm (1 foot), and it has a couple of very close relatives, one of which is the Coastal Giant Salamander (D. tenebrosus) which gets a tiny bit bigger. It's one of only two salamanders in the world capable of vocalizing, and it sounds like this:
30cm is a pretty fair size for a salamander, but it's nothing compared to the rumored examples of the Japanese Giant Salamander (Andrias japonicus) said by some to be found among Northern California's redwoods and mountain streams. These are five times larger, reaching 1.5m (5 feet) in length, and crushing the scales at 25 kg (55 lbs). All have relatively flat bodies and broad, diamond or shovel shaped skulls. Japan is at roughly the same latitude as northern California and both salamanders live in similar climates and conditions, so there's really no reason that the Japanese Giant Salamander couldn't survive just fine in the Trinity Alps.
If there were a giant salamander in California — and by giant, we're now talking Japanese Giant size — it needn't even be individuals from that particular species. Just as there are several close relatives of California's Dicamptodon ensatus, the Japanese Giant has close relatives as well, both of which are even bigger, and they come from mainland China: Andrias davidianus and Andrias sligoi, this latter of which can reach 1.8m (6 feet).
Evidence for the existence of a Californian giant comes from that most reliable of all sources: yarn-spinning miners from the days of the gold rush and subsequent decades. Various cryptozoology authors have published chapters collecting a few of these tales, and here are a couple summarized from Loren Coleman and Jerome Clark's Cryptozoology A to Z:
And another story:
I only found one newspaper article telling the story of a giant salamander sighting, and it was only the thinnest of secondhand anecdotes, told half a century after the fact, no less. It was from a 1959 edition of a local paper, the Redding Record-Searchlight and Courier Free Press:
(The two Griffiths referenced in the two stories do not appear to have been related.)
So we might ask how could it have been possible for some of the Asian giant salamanders to make it over across the Pacific Ocean into California, where they might well have taken root in the similar climate and flourished, perhaps eventually becoming their own subspecies? There are certainly examples of this happening in the far distant past. Marsupials are one example. Most marsupials are found in Australia, and most of the rest are in South America, with a few having spread to North America. But hey, South America and Australia are nowhere near each other! This is because they were separated when the supercontinent Pangaea split into Gondwana and Laurasia some 120 million years ago, but prior to that split, they were adjacent territories on the same land mass. Another example is a genus of trees called southern beeches, which were widely dispersed on Pangaea and, since its breakup, are today also found in Australia and South America, in addition to New Zealand, New Guinea, and New Caledonia. So it's perfectly reasonable to ask if this continental breakup could explain species of giant salamanders on opposite coasts of the Pacific Ocean.
Alas, the answer is no. California and Japan were on opposite coasts of Pangaea. Not much mingling of species. It split up and the continents spread out to their current positions, and today the east coast of Asia and the west coast of North America are actually getting a tiny bit closer each year. That independent development of the American and Asian salamanders in different parts of Pangaea are why they are two different genera, Dicamptodon and Andrias. So if we were to find an Andrias species in North America, this likely means that it would have been artificially introduced, and probably pretty recently.
Crossing the Bering land bridge from Asia to America during one of the ice ages when sea levels were low enough to permit it is something worth looking at. This did happen with a great number of species. Mammals and megafauna crossed freely back and forth. Humans crossed. Lots of plants crossed, not only by spreading naturally but by their seeds being carried by wind and animals. But there were also plenty of living things that could not cross. These included most tropical species of all kinds; they were already permanently barred from getting to within thousands of kilometers of the land bridge's extremely high latitude. It also included any species that required a specialized diet, or a specialized habitat. There's a reason we don't see giant salamanders lumbering through the deserts or on high rocky plateaus. We might look in streams in those places or turn over some rocks and find them, but each species is adapted to a very specific habitat. Many need to stay wet all the time; the biggest giant ones are entirely aquatic, never coming out of the streams at all; and lacking gills they have to stay in fast moving freshwater to get sufficient oxygen washing over their skin. And while the habitats of Dicamptodon ensatus and Andrias japonicus are indeed nearly the same, getting from one to the Bering land bridge to the other would have required crossing many habitation zones that neither species could have survived in.
So if there ever were any Japanese Giant Salamanders in the Trinity Alps of California, the reason would have had to be that someone transported them there. And because of the long travel times to cross the Pacific by wooden sailing ship and the japonicus' unique needs for fast flowing highly oxygenated freshwater, it simply wasn't possible before modern times, and there's little point in even speculating on this.
This did in fact happen on one occasion, at least according to cryptozoologist Karl Shuker, who wrote that in 1939, three specimens of Andrias davidianus were purchased from China and one of them, a medium-sized individual named Benny, somehow escaped from the ship in the Sacramento River on its way to the port in Stockton. Benny was apparently caught by a fisherman and was identified by a herpetologist from Chico State College named Dr. Thomas L. Rodgers.
Finally we have a few facts that, while they don't disprove the existence of japonicus in California, they do make it even less likely. One of these is the lack of any fossil evidence and any well documented remains. Another is that any time we have a species of salamander, we find that it's in context with similar species in surrounding areas. Dicamptodon in California is surrounded by at least three other Dicamptodon species in the Western US, all in the same size range; and Japan's Andrias has at least two and possibly as many as 4 other Andrias species in Eastern Asia, all big giganto guys. Following this same natural distribution, if there were a species of Andrias in California — or even a new, undiscovered genus of giant salamander — we'd expect to see a few other relatives in surrounding regions. And of those, we don't even have any of the old anecdotal reports. All this adds to the body of evidence suggesting there probably isn't any such species.
And so, we're going to leave this one in the file of "Gee it sure would be cool, but unfortunately it just ain't so." Hopefully someone will come in and drop an 18-inch shovel-shaped skull on my desk tomorrow, but until they do, California's monster salamander will remain the stuff of dreams.
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