It soon becomes clear that the giant salamander has hit Claude Gascon’s enthusiasm button smack on the nose.
“This is a dinosaur, this is amazing,” he enthuses.
“We’re talking about salamanders that usually fit in the palm of your hand. This one will chop your hand off.”
As a leader of Conservation International’s (CI) scientific programmes, and co-chair of the Amphibian Specialist Group with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Dr Gascon has seen a fair few frogs and salamanders in his life; but little, he says, to compare with this.
Fortunately for all of our digits, this particular giant salamander is in no position to chop off anything, trapped in a tank in the visitors’ centre in Maniwa City, about 800km west of Tokyo.
But impressive it certainly is: about 1.7m (5ft 6in) long, covered in a leathery skin that speaks of many decades passed, with a massive gnarled head covered in tubercles whose presumed sensitivity to motion probably helped it catch fish by the thousand over its lifetime.
If local legend is to be believed, though, this specimen is a mere tadpole compared with the biggest ever seen around Maniwa.
A 17th Century tale, related to us by cultural heritage officer Takashi Sakata, tells of a salamander (or hanzaki, in local parlance) 10m long that marauded its way across the countryside chomping cows and horses in its tracks.
A local hero was found, one Mitsui Hikoshiro, who allowed the hanzaki to swallow him whole along with his trusty sword – which implement he then used, in the best heroic tradition, to rend the beast from stem to stern.
It proved not to be such a good move, however.
Crops failed, people started dying in mysterious ways – including Mr Hikoshiro himself.
Pretty soon the villagers drew the obvious conclusion that the salamander’s spirit was wreaking revenge from beyond the grave, and must be placated. That is why Maniwa City boasts a shrine to the hanzaki.
The story illustrates the cultural importance that this remarkable creature has in some parts of Japan.
Its scientific importance, meanwhile, lies in two main areas: its “living fossil” identity, and its apparently peaceful co-existence with the chytrid fungus that has devastated so many other amphibian species from Australia to the Andes.
“The skeleton of this species is almost identical to that of the fossil from 30 million years ago,” recounts Takeyoshi Tochimoto, director of the Hanzaki Institute near Hyogo.
“Therefore it’s called the ‘living fossil’.”
The hanzaki (Andrias japonicus) only has two close living relatives: the Chinese giant salamander (A. davidianus), which is close enough in size and shape and habits that the two can easily cross-breed, and the much smaller hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis) of the south-eastern US.
Creatures rather like these were certainly around when dinosaurs dominated life on land, and fossils of the family have been found much further afield than their current tight distribution – in northern Europe, certainly, where scientists presumed the the lineages had gone extinct until tales of the strange Oriental forms made their way back to the scientific burghers of Vienna and Leiden a couple of centuries ago. …
Wow, check out the hands. This large amphibian’s hands look like a step between reptiles and mammals.