Photograph by Ben Tapley

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Professor Wu gets used to his new home at the Zoological Society of London.

Photograph by Ben Tapley

4-Foot Salamander Arrives in London as Face of New Conservation Effort

Dubbed Professor Wu, the new arrival could help the Zoological Society of London's efforts to save the critically endangered animal.

With his tiny eyes, sly grin, and slimy skin, Professor Wu may sound like an odd poster child.

But the Chinese giant salamander, which recently arrived at the Zoological Society of London's London Zoo, is the face of a new effort to save the world's largest amphibians by, in part, working with China's salamander farmers to discourage hunting and establishing a breeding facility in the country.

Habitat destruction and a Chinese appetite for the creatures has led to an 80 percent decline in their numbers in recent decades, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists them as critically endangered.

The 19-year-old Professor Wu—named after one of the conservation project's partners in China—is the only Chinese giant salamander in the U.K. (Watch video: "Giant Salamanders Helped to Spawn.")

"He's an impressive size, measuring 1.3 meters [4.3 feet] from snout to tail, and on top of that he has a feisty personality—it took a team of four of us to move him to his new custom-built home," Ben Tapley, team leader of the zoo's reptile and amphibian team, said in a statement.

"As well as an exciting arrival here at the zoo, this giant salamander is a great representative for our groundbreaking conservation project in China," Tapley said, "where we really want to turn the fate of this critically endangered and evolutionary distinct species around."

Big Trouble

As part of the project, the zoo and its partners are surveying people in China about what they believe are threats to the salamander. This on-the-ground input may provide information for conservationists to make sound decisions about helping the amphibian.

The team is also analyzing the genes of various salamander populations and comparing them to determine how they're related, which will help conservationists prioritize.

The zoo is working with commercial salamander farmers to both reduce disease on the farms and prevent wild salamanders from being harvested. Most Chinese giant salamanders are thought to come from the wild—China does not regulate their hunting.

The project hopes to establish a new breeding facility in China to raise Chinese giant salamanders that could eventually be released into the wild. (See "Rare Giant Salamanders Bred in Captivity.")

Professor Wu obviously won't play a direct role in such activities, but the London Zoo hopes he will get visitors to think about the Chinese giant salamander's rapid decline in the wild.

Easy Targets

Scientists aren't sure how many Chinese giant salamanders still exist in the wild, where the animal inhabits fast-flowing streams and mountain lakes, feeding on fish and crustaceans.

There are two other species of giant salamander, the Japanese giant salamander and the United States' hellbender, both of which are designated as near threatened by the IUCN. (Related: "U.S. Giant Salamanders Slipping Away: Inside the Fight to Save the Hellbender.")

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Chinese giant salamanders are overharvested for food in part because they're easy to capture: They hide in rock crevasses and can be easily snagged by hunters.

The species reproduces slowly, taking an estimated 15 years to reach breeding age.

What's more, much of its Chinese habitat has been developed or destroyed—"one of the most significant threats this species faces," said Jessi Krebs, curator of reptiles and amphibians at the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, Nebraska. (Read about vanishing amphibians in National Geographic magazine.)

"The damming of rivers and streams for flood control and farming makes the habitat unusable for the salamanders."

Considering this, the giant salamander's future may seem bleak. But on behalf of Professor Wu and his wild relatives, the Zoological Society of London and others are giving it the old college try.

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