16 March 2011

the case of the giant salamander

In his 1858 work, Curiosities of Natural History, Francis Trevelyan Buckland, the English surgeon turned natural historian, makes a tantalizing observation:

"One of the most celebrated newts ever discovered was found about a century ago... and was described by a philosopher of those days as a human skeleton, which he called 'Homo diluvii testis' and a great fuss it then made in the learned world."

Yes, that's right, one of the most celebrated newts was described as a human being.  There's enough there to tempt a connoisseur of the preposterous, but Buckland leaves it at that, with no further mention of the "philosopher" who turns out to be Swiss naturalist Johann Jakob Scheuchzer, who made the extraordinary discovery in 1726 of a four foot long fossilized vertebrate skeleton in a German limestone quarry.

To Scheuchzer, who possessed one of the largest collections of fossils in Europe, this astonishing find bore a striking resemblance to a human being.  It consisted of a long backbone capped by a large semi-circular skull containing two huge eye sockets.  Scheuchzer was convinced he had unearthed irrefutable proof of a human who had perished in the biblical Great Flood, describing it as "the bony skeleton of one of those infamous men whose sins brought upon the world the dire misfortune of the deluge".  The name he chose for his discovery, Homo diluvii testis, translates to "the man who witnessed the flood". 

His assessment remained unchallenged until 1811 when Georges Cuvier, the renowned French anatomist appointed by Napoleon as Minister of Education, was despatched to the Netherlands where he had the opportunity to view the fossil at the Teylers Museum where it can still be seen today.  Cuvier had theorized that Scheuchzer's discovery might be the remains of an amphibian and he brought to the museum a sketch of a salamander skeleton for comparison.  After a thorough examination of the fossil, which included preparing the specimen by carefully chipping away at its surrounding sediment, Cuvier confirmed his suspicions.  This was no human being.
It was...a giant salamander.

from Creative Commons

Today it seems laughable that anyone, especially Scheuchzer, who had trained as a physician and had surely seen a human skeleton, could mistake the amphibian fossil for that of a human.  But this was the 18th century; the field of comparative anatomy was not widely known, life on earth was largely understood as the byproduct of biblical events, and the Bible was generally regarded as the one reliable history of the creation of the world.  Perhaps Scheuchzer saw only what he wanted to see.  His identification of the fossil as the remains of a hapless flood victim fit neatly with the prevailing creationist views.

The fossil that was eventually rechristened Andrias scheuchzeri in Scheuchzer's honor was the ancestor of the creatures we know today as the Chinese and Japanese giant salamanders.  The Chinese giant salamander, Andrias davidianus, is the largest living amphibian, reaching an impressive length of up to six feet and weighing as much as 140 pounds.  It dwells in cold streams and mountain lakes where it  feasts on fish.  This salamander is a critically endangered species whose main threats are the degradation of its habitat and its status as a highly valued delicacy.  In China, those seeking the prized flesh may pay up to $200 a pound.

The Japanese giant salamander, A. japonicus, is the world's second largest amphibian, growing up to five feet in length.  Considered a national treasure in Japan, it too is threatened by habitat loss, although protection acts were established to eliminate the overfishing of this species for food.  Each August 8th, in Okayama prefecture, the locals honor the mythical giant salamander known as a Hanzaki, a menacing 30 foot long amphibian who, according to the legend, lumbered  throughout the region, devouring cattle and marauding generally.  A brave villager armed with a sword sacrificed himself to the Hanzaki and was eaten alive, eventually managing to kill the creature by slicing it from head to tail.  The story notes however, that there was no end to the trouble for the villagers, whose crops mysteriously began to fail.  They concluded that the bloodthirsty monster was hellbent on revenge and would continue to torment them from the grave if not somehow appeased.   In desperate self-defense, the villagers established Hanzaki Daimyojin, a shrine built to propitiate the cantankerous spirit of the colossal beast.

You can learn more about this intriguing creature at the Japanese Giant Salamander Protection International Website and  through an online BBC article in which much about the giant salamander is explained and from the accompanying video, which shows our large friend enduring some gentle eye-poking with appropriately amphibian sang-froid.



James said...

Really neat story. I love when biology and history get mixed up like that.

Bijibou said...

I'm delighted to hear that you enjoyed it - thank you.