The Cryptobranchidae family (more pronounceably called the Giant Salamander family) is not only significant for containing the largest amphibians then and now, but also for having a lineage that extends back through the fossil record to an origin in Mongolia during the Jurassic Period. Significantly, this is a family that rode out the K-Pg mass extinction event that infamously eliminated 75% of all species on Earth, including the non-avian dinosaurs.
But for the Giant Salamanders of both Europe and North America, the party came to an end 2.58 million years ago with the beginning of the ice age and the subsequent glacial periods. The ice sheets drove the Cryptobranchidae out of Europe. Of course the same was true for most of the fauna, including Homo sapiens. All the animals including ourselves retreated southwards. Britain was abandoned entirely. The last glacial period lasted from 110,000 years ago until just 12,000 years ago, at which point the glaciers retreated, the air warmed, the continents sprung upwards, and the oceans began a steady rise to their current levels. Also at this time, the newly-created Loch Ness appeared for the first time, having been gauged out by the glaciers that were now melting away.
And species that had sought refuge in warmer climes returned to northern Europe and, following the game, the people returned to places like Britain as well, no doubt aided by the fact the British isles were one big peninsula at the time, connected to mainland Europe by the great land bridge of Doggerland.
Sadly though the European Cryptobranchidae appeared to have been lost. Their fossil record ends where the ice age begins, and no fossils dating within the last 12,000 years have been found to indicate they survived and returned to Europe after the last glaciation. Then again, 12,000 years is an infinitesimal piece of the geological record, and aquatic salamanders do not fossilize easily. The absence of Cryptobranchidae from this tiny slice of the record cannot alone be taken as proof that European Giant Salamanders became extinct. What we do know is that today, the only recognized species of living Cryptobranchidae are the Chinese Giant Salamander (Andrias davidianus), the Japanese Giant Salamander (Andrias japonicus), and the diminutive 2-foot Hellbender (Crytptobranchus alleganiensis) from the southeastern United States.
So now to the question: How could a theoretical Loch Ness Giant Salamander, that being the thesis of this blog, even stand a chance unless there was a surviving European Giant Salamander first? Pre-ice age salamanders don't count, because Loch Ness didn't exist until after the last glaciation. Europe today is replete with small newts and salamanders of the modern suborder Salamandroidea, and then there's the olms, the ancestors of which came racing into Europe before the last glaciation had even finished melting. All of these prove post-glacial Europe is an amenable ecosystem for small, modern salamanders and all manner of other amphibians, but what about those primitive Giant Salamanders that had thrived in Europe before the ice came? I find it a bit surprising that a family that endured the K-Pg mass extinction and flourished another 65 million years couldn't survive a 98,000 year vacation to the nearby Mediterranean, like the rest of the fauna. There could be reasons of course, but Occam's razor leads us to consider a different possibility.
What if one or more of the European Giant Salamander species did return to their original habitats after the ice age ended, and it's been overlooked?
Surprisingly, I have had the greatest blind luck to stumble onto an answer to this question. Perhaps more surprisingly, the answer lays in an archaeological dig in southeastern Turkey.
Göbekli Tepe is the most amazing archaeological site you've probably never heard of. Now being excavated from beneath the hill of the same name, it has unexpectedly proven to be the world's oldest megalithic site, as well as the oldest religious site discovered anywhere so far. This immense Stone-Age "cathedral" was constructed by Neolithic hunter-gatherers beginning 10,000 years ago, and added to and used up until 8,000 years ago. These early dates are staggering. No one would have expected a pre-agricultural society to have undertaken such a monumental building project, The excavations and analysis of this site became the life's work of German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt, who unfortunately passed away in 2014.
The site consists of between 170 and 200 T-shaped monoliths found so far, up to 20' tall and 10-20 tons in weight. In the earliest layer these are arranged in multiple stone circles, but beginning 8800 years ago construction shifted to putting the pillars inside a series of smaller, rectangular rooms. Schmidt interpreted the circles and later rooms to represent separate but adjacent shrines.
Many of the megaliths at Göbekli Tepe are intricately adorned with carved reliefs of animals: lions, foxes, leopards, eagles, vultures, scorpions, spiders and snakes. This is in stark contrast to other examples of late Pleistocene art, which normally depict only the game animals (wild horse, deer, bison) on which the society depended for food. But here for the first time we have depictions of predators, presumably intended as totems to ward off evil.
Of note is that every animal depicted is a real member of the local fauna at the time, not mythological creatures or flights of fancy.
Klaus Schmidt called it all a "Stone-age zoo".
Now I have to confess I was ignorant of Göbekli Tepe until recently. But archaeology being another of my interests I eventually ran across mention of it, so off I went to Wikipedia to read all about it, which I did with utter fascination. Then I picked an excavation picture at random, the one you see below:
Then I picked one of the megaliths at random, the one inside the red circle I've added, to zoom in for a closer look....
And this is the remarkable thing I found. I must have stared with my mouth open for 30 seconds while my brain rebooted itself.
This carving is, with little room for doubt, a very accurate depiction of a Cryptobranchidae salamander. The body proportions of Giant Salamanders are distinct, and all represented here: the extra thick tail (appearing so due to the caudal fin), the rather stubby limbs, and especially the round, near-circular head that, when viewed dorsally, appears larger in diameter than the body is wide. It's an unmistakably unique appearance.
But only real, local fauna are carved in the stones at Göbekli Tepe, and these carvings all date between 10,000 and 8,000 years ago.
Which is after the ice age, two to four thousand years after the glaciers had withdrawn.
This is the first evidence I am aware of that living Giant Salamanders were spotted in Europe after the last glaciation. It is circumstantial evidence, but very strong circumstantial evidence. The people of Göbekli Tepe had to be seeing living Cryptobranchidae in their landscape to have carved one, along with all the rest of the respected predators in their environment, and to have done so with such accuracy. Neolithic hunter-gatherers from Turkey could not have visited China or Japan. Nor could they have visited the southeastern United States, where C. alleganiensis had survived the ice age in America. The only explanation can be that at least one species of European Giant Salamander survived the glacial period and returned to Europe afterwards.
Which species was it? Andrias scheuchzeri, or Ukrainurus hyposognathus? Or another species we have yet to identify in the European fossil record? Or a combination of all three?
Importantly, there is also no reason to assume the surviving species was limited in range to Turkey -- that's unlikely. A vast network of freshwater rivers and lakes interconnected all of Europe after the ice had melted. In fact, it would have been possible to get from Turkey all the way to Scotland and Ireland at this time, because Doggerland connected Britain to the mainland, and no English Channel existed yet. Loch Ness was becoming stocked with freshwater fish that followed this very path during this period. All of Europe was once again a hospitable environment for amphibians of all sizes.
There were indeed Giant Salamanders in Europe after Loch Ness had formed. And nothing to keep them out.
|C. alleganiensis smiling at you |