Archive: A Giant Undertaking: New Habitat Debuts at Detroit Zoo

Renovated space is home to Japanese giant salamanders

August 3, 2018

ROYAL OAK, Mich., 

The Detroit Zoo today opened its newest immersive experience – a home for Japanese giant salamanders in the award-winning National Amphibian Conservation Center.

The former Rainforest Immersion Gallery has been transformed into a 1,850-square-foot space to provide these enormous aquatic amphibians with a habitat twice the size of their previous dwelling. The renovated space features naturalistic elements resembling the giant salamanders’ native landscape in Japan, including a waterfall, flowing stream and underwater caves.

“The goal was to make the salamanders’ home large enough to eventually accommodate all five individuals who live at the Detroit Zoo and, at the same time, create a peaceful retreat for visitors to observe the salamanders as they swim and explore their new space,” said Scott Carter, chief life sciences officer for the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS).

Fun learning elements allow visitors to understand these complex creatures, including a video that highlights the individual animals at the Zoo: males Bob, Dieter and Sven, and females Hatsue and Helga. The males can be seen in the new habitat, while the females are in the former habitat for the time being.

“Guests are able to watch the males explore their new home from now until breeding season in the spring,” Carter said. “We are waiting to introduce the females then, which is a natural time when they would encounter and interact with males.”

The Japanese giant salamander (Andrias japonicas) is the world’s second-largest salamander. They can grow to over 4 feet long, weigh up to 88 pounds and live about 50 years. They have a broad, elongated body, a long tail and two pairs of legs that are similar in size. Their heavily wrinkled brown and black skin helps them blend in with the mud, stones and plants of rivers and streams, and their flattened bodies are streamlined for swimming at the bottom of the fast-flowing water. Their eyes are small and positioned on top of their heads, causing them to rely on smell and touch for hunting.

The species is listed as Near Threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as wild populations are dwindling due to habitat degradation. Once the Japanese giant salamanders at the Detroit Zoo are acclimated to their new home, the DZS will participate in a cooperative breeding program with a partner zoo in Japan, working to bolster the population of the species and eventually release zoo-born salamanders in their native habitat.