Monday, March 26, 2007

Cameron's Cryptozoology Page: Giant Salamanders

Dear Constant Readers,

As some of you may recall on my giant fictional temnospondyl post, I had already given this topic a brief introduction. As I mentioned here, I covered this topic on an old website which is in the process of being converted into blog form. Looking over the page, the quality was so poor that I'm going to have to try and re-research everything too. I'm just going to delete the page, I don't want to link to anything that embarrassing! I'm also trying to cut back on time consuming posts, especially after an infamous squid post that took me somewhere around 15-20 hours to write/illustrate. That doesn't mean I don't care though! It has just become a little...infeasible with school, but once summer hits expect some more wildly time-consuming blogs. Anyways, enough rambling, on with the show.

Sorry for the horrendous illustration. It was done much more recently than I'd like to admit.

The Sacramento River Cryptobranchid

I think I'll start off with the best documented case and work my way down. This one wasn't confined to some obscure Cryptozoology book, but was actually published in Herpetological Notes. The story goes that in 1939 or '40 a fisherman caught a 25 to 30 inch (0.6 to 0.75 m) long salamander near Walnut Grove (California) and kept it alive in a bathtub. The author of the paper, George C. Myers, was actually able to handle the animal, which was in very good health, for about half an hour. A cursory Google search showed him to be a fairly respectable fellow, as far as I could tell at least. He identified the specimen as an "undoubted Megalobatrachus", an archaic name for the Andrias giant salamanders of China (A. davidianus) and Japan (A. japonicus). More about this interesting group, the Cryptobranchids, can be found at the ever-helpful Tree of Life page one. Myers handled the Japanese species and knew the Chinese one through photos, but was not able to make a precise identification. He observed slate-gray salamanders, but the Sacramento specimen he was was brown with well-defined, irregular, sparse 1 cm yellow spots on the back. Myers noted that it did not appear to be due to disease, since the animal was in good health. He entertained the notion that perhaps it was a new species, and it made Zoogeographical sense since there were Cryptobranchid populations to the West and to East (the Hellbender). However, it should be noted that a paper on Cryptobranchid Salamanders from the Paleocene and Miocene of Saskatchewan (by Bruce G. Naylor, 1981) speculated that the current Cryptobranchid range is not a relict of a much larger range, but due to shifting populations, I am not certain if this is the current thought or not. That tangent aside, Myers also mentioned that live Andrias were known to have been shipped to the area, and he also speculated on (but dismissed) the possibility of a hoaxed background story.

This story is believable, but Myers' account is often misquoted by Cryptozoologists (such as here) to make it sound as if he definitively implied a new species. I will admit that a new species of giant salamander in the American West isn't impossible, but the likelihood of one of the world's largest amphibians living undetected (it hasn't been seen in the river before or since) in a populated area is quite problematic. And the biggest problem is, the supposed coloration differences between the Sacramento specimen and Andrias don't exist. See here, here, here, here, here, here and here for examples. How Myers did not know this and how Cryptozoologists somehow managed not to check what Andrias looks like is beyond me. The case for an exotic escapee is of course pretty compelling right now. Most Cryptozoological accounts close the story right here, but it in fact continues.

Incredibly, in the journal Copeia in 1962 an article called Reports of Giant Salamanders in California was published by Thomas L. Rodgers. He referenced Myers' paper and revealed that he himself examined the specimen. It was reported as a "monster" in a local paper...and it was claimed by an owner! A Chinese collector of odd "fish" named Wong Hong lost Benny on the Steamer Isleton when it was in his tub. The circumstances are not clear but the Captain Charles Bjork confirmed the case. It was lost near Stockton, California, not far from Walnut Grove where it was hypothetically picked up. Hong also had two other specimens of the Giant Salamander. I have not heard this story mentioned to date, and it effectively closes the case.

The Trinity Alps Giant Salamander

In the same paper, Rodgers goes on to talk about how speculation of Benny being a relict Cryptobranchid was soon connected with reports from the Trinity Alps of Northern California of giant salamanders. Rodgers was not only closely connected with the case of Benny, but also with those reports. He knew of at least four men who heard stories in the alps of giant salamanders (or lizards) ranging from 30-40 years ago (e.g. the '20s to '30s). The most detailed account he heard in 1948 was from a John D. Hubbard, who in turn heard it from a lawyer in the 20's named Frank L. Griffith. Griffith had shot a deer near a small lake, and when he looked in, saw five salamanders ranging from five to nine feet (1.5 to 2.75 m) long. He managed to hook one, but failed to pull it out. It always works like that in these stories, hmm. After hearing the story, Rodgers speculated that it was a Dicamptodon (a local foot long "giant salamander") or possibly a relict Cryptobranchid. Hubbard ran to the press with the story, proclaiming it a relict Cryptobranchid with the "support of a scientist". This is what ultimately pressed Rodgers to write his article, since he felt as if he had misled the public.

Rodgers himself went on a few expeditions to try and find Griffith's lake; including one with Robert C. Stebbins, Nathan W. Cohen, and 10 laymen. I assume Stebbins and Cohen are scientists or Biologists of some variety. They came to a lake meeting Griffith's description and managed to catch some Dicamptodon, which remarkably either chewed through or broke the fishing lines. Some of the boys with them even mistook 3-6 foot long logs (1-2 meters) as giant salamanders. The largest Dicamptodon caught was 11.5" (0.3 m) long, a far cry from the reported lengths, but near to maximum of the species. Rodgers treats this as a debunking of the Trinity Alps Giant Salamander. While that is a bit pre-mature for my tastes, given the secondhand nature of the story and the inability to find giant salamanders (and have smaller, known species replicate their alleged behavior) I'll have to at least agree that this does not help out the case very much.

For a cryptid of moderate popularity, there sure doesn't seem to be a lot written on it online. There has been a story about the capture of an alleged 8'4" (100 inches or 2.5 meters) specimen, but I'm hesitant even mentioning it without a published reference to confirm the details. I recall there was a storm or something and the specimen was conveniently lost. Who knows how many-hand that story was. Rodgers implies more stories, but I assume none of them are very detailed. There was apparently a side-expedition by the millionaire bigfooter Tom Slick which failed to turn up any evidence. There was also a 1997 expedition by a group called TAGSE, but I can't find their site anymore. They didn't find anything, by the way. And I of course haven't heard of any modern sightings. So despite being hyped occasionally as a likely cryptid, the poor Trinity Alps Giant Salamander just seems like local folklore recieving a bizarrely inflated amount of attention. It is of course illogical to dismiss them as impossible; but it is quite possible to say that with the current evidence, there isn't any reason for thinking they're anything more exotic than the local known "giant" salamander, Dicamptodon.

Oh, and if you don't have access to the articles, scans are available on the useful Strangeark website here and here.

Black "Alligators"

I cannot help but remember reports of the Loch Ness monster which mention an alligator/lizard like appearance, or even more exotic and bizarre ones (camel-like, slug-like?!). It isn't too plausible to have a whole pantheon of beasties in one moderately-sized lake, so there has to be another explanation. Perhaps people just see one different type of animal in many different ways. Or, far more likely, there are a number of unrelated phenomenon tied together under the "monster" umbrella label.

I bring this up because a few authors in an independent online Cryptozoology publication (NABR pages 6-12) bring up the possibility that some of the lake monster sightings in Canada (especially British Columbia) may refer to a second type of creature. The reports apparently describe an animal up to 15-20 feet long (4.5 to 6 m), although they acknowledge that it probably has been overestimated in most cases. The animal has smooth skin with a possible rough ridge on the back and "horns" on the head. It is a quadruped and can leave the water.

For the theorizing on the identity of the animal, I must comment on the science of the authors. They apparently think that the suggestion of a crocodilian has been unfairly thrown out by earlier authors, and point out that ectotherms like other reptiles and cryptobranchids could survive in the same cold climate. Treating crocodilians as just any other reptile or even calling them 'reptiles' is a bit unfair to say the least. They have four chambered hearts, advanced social behavior, are more closely related to birds than other "reptiles", and evolved from much more active ancestors. Crocodilians have difficulty with cold temperatures, probably due to their more "advanced" nature than other reptiles. Alligators are temperate adapted crocodilians and the best they can manage is Virginia. See the inevitable Darren Naish pdf for more information. It should also be noted that in the past, large temnospondyl amphibians occupied a crocodilian-like niche in cooler areas. Why they didn't even suggest a temnospondyl is beyond me. Instead they also suggested a Aetosaurian, which must have been some sort of joke. A herbivorous, heavily armored, short faced, terrestrial relative of crocodilians seems a tad...jarring. They also suggest Leopold Plancke's "sea-iguana", and I have no idea what that is. You can see from this paragraph that writing on Cryptozoology topics makes me feel guilty and forces me into discussing as much actual science as possible.

Back on topic, I don't think that listing all the reports will help us like how they did with the infamous Cetacean Centipede post. The reason I think this is that the authors admit the preliminary nature of their post, and the reports are admirably quite vague. Somehow I don't think a sighting of a black, log-like animal is much proof for either type of "lake monster", let alone anything.

This Cryptomundo post by John Kirk is the most recent mention of this "cryptid". He still uses the term "Megalobatrachus" for some reason, and believed the species to be closely related to the Trinity Alps "giant" salamander. He mentions a very interesting sighting from Nitnat Lake where men encountered a 6 foot (1.8 meter) "salamander" under wooden beams. There was also a recent sighting (2002) which Kirk holds in high regard near Pitt Lake of a 5+ foot (1.5+ m) black salamander by one Dan Gerak. Apparently the most recent report came from 2005.

For some reason, I just really like the concept of this cryptid. There's just something aesthetically pleasing (to me) about some big relict still splashing around in remote woodland lakes. Heck, with my childish imagination I could picture myself playing around in the lakes, trying to find my own giant salamanders. I would like to re-visit the Pacific Northwest in general too, cryptids aside. Even though part of me wants this cryptid to be real, I know the odds are, well, close to nothing. The vague reports are interesting, but further investigation seem to always explode whatever alleged "patterns" and "evidence" was originally brought up. This is probably the catalyst of me creating my own "mountain crocodile" on Connor's Island, to at least have it real somewhere!

And this is a problem in Cryptozoology. In a lot of cases, people want the monsters to be real, and often overlook the evidence (or lack of evidence) pointing otherwise. Don't get me wrong, new species, some probably large and fairly interesting, will be discovered. But will they be discovered by these researchers? I hope one of them gets lucky some day, but it isn't too likely. Even though I want to have a scientific mind, the mystery of Cryptozoology just has a magnetic appeal to me still. Hopefully if I ever manage to get a career in the Zoological field, I can try and rationally approach any likely "mystery animals" but still keep my sense of wonder. I just hope any interest in these topics period doesn't have me seen as a kook by colleagues and a cynical skeptic by the Cryptozoology crowd. Can there be a happy medium?



Yes, I am aware of reports of a "giant pink salamander" from Ohio, but I admit to really not knowing any resources about it. I'd personally guess exaggerated accounts of cave-dwelling species, but who knows.


Anonymous said...

Oh but there is a happy medium. Charcoal is incredibly happy. I always like your last sentences the most, but I suppose I should read them all.

*Time passes*

I always like to note the passage of time. The other sentences are quite entertaining as well.

Happy little side note : To rub someone a salamander was a 19th century form of German student drinking toast (einem einen salamander reiben).

Anonymous said...

2 Hellbenders were just caught in the South Fork Tributary of the New River in West Jefferson, NC. The particular area of the river was a heavily-used area as well for fly-fishing and canoeing. It wasn't remote. Hellbenders are supposed to only live in very clean water, so if big hellbenders were found where many people live and frequent on a daily basis, then why not something else. By the way, there is newpaper publications to back this claim.
It would be in in June-July 2007.

Neil said...

I can't believe it took me so long to discover your blog.

I'm this close to hopping in my car and driving to Walnut Grove right now....