Friday, October 6, 2017

New Evidence for Giant Salamanders in Post-Glacial Europe

Europe during the Miocene and subsequent Pliocene Epochs was replete with more salamanders than the continent has seen before or since -- five families including at least two species of giant aquatic salamanders (Andrias scheuchzeri and Ukrainurus hyposognathus) from the family Cryptobranchidae.  The fossil record also shows multiple, related giant species were also thriving in eastern North America at the same time, having arrived from Europe before the North Atlantic split that followed the Cretaceous, when Scotland was still conjoined to Canada via what later became Iceland and Greenland.  (One such American species, Andrias matthewi, grew as large or larger than 7.5 feet -- Naylor 1981).

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


  1. You and Roland amaze me with your findings Steve.This is another top class find and very interesting.Can i just ask you something? If Loch ness is home to big salamanders how big do you think they are? The biggest salamander we know living now is about 5ft long but witness sightings at the loch claim 20 ft humps and sometimes 30 ft. What is your view size wise?

  2. Thanks for commenting GEZZA, and glad you enjoyed the article.

    You hit on one of the main problems should we wish to classify Nessie as a member of the Cryptobranchidae family: they all run smaller than the 20 to 30 foot size estimates of what people claim to have seen in the Loch. For example, the Chinese A. davidianus (and the probably-synonymous A. scheuchzeri from Europe) officially top out at 6 feet. Unofficially, there were early travelers reports of the Chinese species reaching 8 feet before it was formally classified by later zoologists. (The poor things are in so much demand as food today that it's rare for one to live long enough to even attain 4 feet these days.) Andrias matthewi, the largest pre-glacial Canadian species, grew to as much as 7.5 feet, but we have so few specimens of A. matthewi it's unlikely we've seen the maximum. For example, we've no reason to rule out A. matthewi growing to 10 feet, although probably not much more.

    I suspect witnesses often over-estimate the size of what they've seen, and I personally have no trouble with Nessie turning out to be a 10 foot salamander -- that should be "monster" enough to satisfy most people :) But to really account for the reports we are probably searching for an animal at least 15 or 20 feet long, and that would rule out all the known Cryptobranchidae. That does NOT however rule out other, larger amphibians known from the fossil record, but belonging to a different family. A comparison of the candidates is the subject of an upcoming article.

    Meanwhile, it's good to learn Europe was hospitable enough for at least some giant salamanders AFTER the glaciers had formed Loch Ness.

  3. First things first, I look forward to your article comparing the candidates, great stuff.
    I wonder if its possible that some larger ones have escaped been found by fossils, im certain we only know a percentage of past life.I also agree with you that size can be over estimated on loch ness sightings, but within every type of animal one or two can grow a lot bigger than the average one. So if we have a species that grows between 7.5 - 10 feet then there is a chance now and again one could grow to maybe 12- 15 feet, then these would be not far off to the size of what i believe people are seeing in loch ness.
    Great work again Steve and i look forward to your oncoming articles.

    1. The largest two examples of amphibians known from the fossil record are Prionosuchus (30 feet long, 270 MYA) and the Mesozoic species Batrachosuchus watsoni (23 feet). The latter looked just like a triple-sized version of the largest Cryptobranchidae, so I suspect they might have been ancestral, and probably shared many characteristics.

    2. 270,000,000 years ago??
      All made up..
      pure conjecture
      the "dating game" in the fake science of geology is the biggest scam in psyence or scientism.

    3. I've at least temporarily posted your comment, Anon, so you'll know I've seen it. Dumb-ass creationist drivel has no place here (or anywhere) but in case I somehow misinterpreted your wisecracks, I apologize, and I'll give you ONE chance to explain (SCIENTIFICALLY ONLY) why you doubt the dating of Prionosuchus fossils. Any irrational response will simply be ignored.

  4. Very cool article! Good to see a new one!

    1. Thank you Nick! Many things kept me away from writing the last couple years, but that should no longer be the case, so more articles ahead!

  5. More articles? great news. One of my favourite chapters in my nessie book collection is the one of potential candidates in Roy Mackal's MONSTERS OF LOCH NESS, so im looking forward to your next article on which amphibians could be a candidate for nessie.
    Lets hope its not too late in coming :-) HA

  6. Your very clued up on your amphibians Steve, im very impressed.Prionsuchus, Watsoni, the mind boggles.
    Just something that struck me as i googled these was how amazed i was at the photograph of the prionsuchus as it had a long snout. Now i never imagined an amphibian so large and having such a long snout as i always thought most amlbibians had a rounded head. Well it leaves me thinking anything is possible if an amphibian had a snout, could one have a long snout and when at the surface with its mouth open could give off an impression of a long neck? Food for thought Steve :-)

  7. Steve, good to see a new article. I took a quick look at some of the other images from the Göbekli Tepe wiki article and saw this one.

    It's a sculpture, but it does resemble the relief you indicated quite closely I think. It's simply identified as a predatory animal, which all salamanders are. Another intriguing bit.

    Insanity, we first corresponded on Unexplained-Mysteries several years ago and occasionally by email.

    1. Hello my friend! Great to hear from you and know you're still out there on the trail of things :) I recall our correspondences well!

      Wow... I hadn't run across that particular photo at the wiki page before. Wish it was higher res. The limbs look more lizard-like I think, but the head shape is rather like a cryptobranchid. Too small to say for sure. There are hundreds (perhaps thousands) of carvings at the site, and oh too see them all and look for more clues!

    2. I've seen other sources describe both as crocodiles, but the head shape doesn't seem to match. The sides of the sculpture do suggest to me caudal grooves a bit though.

  8. Loved this read Mr P.... prooves there is a lot we dont know! Ive always favoured an unknown creature for nessie ( if it exists)!! I know u favour an amphibian but i av my doubts as it wud be seen on land more times..thats why i think ted hoiday and his tullimunstrem cud be on the right track! But ya never know..a fully aquatic amphibian cud be possible!! Great read anyway and great find...thanks.....Roy

    1. Thanks Roy! Fully aquatic amphibians aren't hypothetical, there are several known species and more than one genus across the world. Some of them never leave the water, and some of them only do so on extremely rare occasions.

  9. I just think everyone went down the plesiosaur theory cus of the description of lots of the sightings and only a plesiosaur matched this!! The tullimunstrem is proof that there cud be more odd looking creatures we havnt discovered and even some with necks. I bet there is hundreds of amphibians we havnt discovered aswell...and maybe some have elongated necks..we dont know! But i love articles like this Mr P....i love the unknown....great blog as well mate ive ad a gud read..cheers...Roy

  10. Good work. Meanwhile in the East...

    1. Thank you, Anonymous! Here's a snippet of the article linked to above for those that should be interested:

      "With individuals weighing in at more than 140 pounds, the critically endangered Chinese giant salamander is well known as the world's largest amphibian. But researchers reporting in the journal Current Biology on May 21 now find that those giant salamanders aren't one species, but five, and possibly as many as eight. The bad news as highlighted by another report appearing in the same issue is that all of the salamanders—once thought to occur widely across China—now face the imminent threat of extinction in the wild, due in no small part to demand for the amphibians as luxury food."

      Read more at: