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Kids get close encounter with giant salamanders in west Japan

NABARI, Mie -- Children were all agog at the Japan Salamander Center here on Jan. 31 as they watched the facility's giant salamanders get their measurements checked for the first time in some eight years as part of a program to showcase the animals' charms.

    A giant salamander is put on a platform to be photographed at the Japan Salamander Center in Nabari, Mie Prefecture, on Jan. 31, 2021. (Mainichi/Teruko Kukita)

    Yoshihiro Kawauchi, a 35-year-old city government employee and a counselor to the Ministry of the Environment, explained the allure of giant salamanders -- a designated national special natural monument -- to visitors while checking their health.

    A visitor touches a Japanese giant salamander's back at the Japan Salamander Center in Nabari, Mie Prefecture, on Jan. 31, 2021. (Mainichi/Teruko Kukita)

    The center is located at the entrance of the Akame 48 Waterfalls, a tourist attraction home to the Japanese giant salamanders. The facility has 40 of the animals, including local breeds born nearby, specimens brought from China that later escaped, and crosses between the two, and puts some of them on display. As the center does not measure the salamanders' lengths and weights regularly and the ages and sexes of many are unclear, the center intends to utilize the measurement data for future breeding.

    On Jan. 31, the center measured the whole-body length, tail, height, distance between the eyes and the weight of 14 salamanders -- seven indigenous, six crossbreeds and one unknown -- and checked their physical condition including missing fingers and toes. Also, the center took photos of their entire bodies, heads, limbs, and cloacae, and checked the individual identification microchips implanted in their shoulders.

    A salamander's length is measured at the Japan Salamander Center in Nabari, Mie Prefecture, on Jan. 31, 2021. (Mainichi/Teruko Kukita)

    Each giant salamander was brought in front of visitors to be measured. The largest indigenous salamander among the group on display, named Takeru, was born in 2002 in a pond made to protect the species while Kawakami Dam was being built in its home habitat in the prefectural city of Iga. The facility said that Takeru is especially important because its age is known. Takeru clocked in at 94.5 centimeters long and 6.95 kilograms, making intimidating sounds during the entire process. A part of a toe was missing.

    During measurements, Kawauchi introduced each animal, telling onlookers their names (Kotetsu and Momiji were two) and about their "rough" or "gentle" characters. He also explained their biology, saying, "They secrete white sticky liquid from their skin when they get mad, such as when they're forced to walk in a certain direction."

    Visitors got a good whiff of the irritating odor of the sticky liquid, and touched salamanders' backs, which feel like sashimi konnyaku. Kiko Ito, 8, and her sister Ann, 4, who were visiting from the neighboring city of Tsu, said, "It wasn't scary, but cute. Its back was slimy."

    A 13-year-old from municipal Akame Junior High School, there to help record the measurements, said, "I think I took good pictures. It was a rare experience."

    Another assistant, 12, from municipal Nishikioakame Elementary School said, "Their roar was scary. And no other animals have feet shaped like that."

    The public measurements took place on the last day of a bamboo lantern event at the Akame 48 Waterfalls. "We made the measurements public as a gift to visitors on the last day of the event," Kawauchi said. "Please come see the giant salamanders again."

    (Japanese original by Teruko Kukita, Nabari Bureau)

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