After posting the above photograph of a Chinese giant salamander Andrias davidianus on my Facebook wall a few days ago, it attracted such interest and such a variety of comments, including some on the subject of alleged giant mystery salamanders reported in North America, that it reminded me of the section on this very same subject that I had included in my book In Search of Prehistoric Survivors back in 1995. Consequently, for those of you who may not have seen it, I am reprinting that section here (with a few slight amendments), plus some new illustrations and a brief update.
A 'DINOSAUR' CALLED PINKY
If there are any regions in North America with prospects (however slim) for concealing living dinosaurs, they must include the humid swamplands of Florida - especially as a creature reputedly akin to such animals has been reported from here on several different occasions.
On 10 May 1975, an outboard motor boat transporting five people on a fishing trip along Florida's 300-mile-long St Johns River experienced a close encounter at a spot between Jacksonville and the Atlantic Ocean with something very peculiar - and certainly not pretty - in pink! At around 10 am, one of the passengers, Brenda Langley, saw the head and neck of an extraordinary creature surface a mere 20 ft from their vessel, and shortly afterwards it was also spied by the other four passengers when they turned the boat around - to escape what seemed to be an oncoming storm, heralded by the arrival of some dark clouds.
According to subsequent press reports of their encounter, quoted by mystery beast chronicler Mark A. Hall in Wonders (December 1992), Dorothy Abram likened it to "...a dinosaur with its skin pulled back so all the bones were showing...[and] pink. Sort of the color of boiled shrimp". She also noted that its head was at least the size of a man's, with a pair of snail-like horns bearing knob-like structures at their tips, there were flaps reminiscent of gills or fins hanging down from the sides of its head, its mouth turned downwards, its large eyes were dark and slanted, and its neck had protruded about 3 ft out of the water, revealing a seemingly serrated upper surface. Brenda Langley agreed with this description, and added that it was an ugly creature recalling pictures of dragons. Its behavioural activity had seemed to its eyewitnesses be one of inquisitiveness, returning their intrigued stares with an equal extent of keen observation during its 8-second appearance - after which it submerged so effortlessly that it did not even leave behind a ripple.
Pinky, as based upon a hypothetical pink hellbender (see later)
Soon to receive the inevitable nickname of Pinky, the St Johns River water beast attracted sufficient media interest to elicit accounts from several other people claiming sightings of just such a beast in this same area as far back as the mid-1950s. This, of course, is hardly an uncommon feature of cryptozoological cases receiving media exposure.
However, Mark Hall has good reason for believing in the validity of these earlier Pinky reports - because 20 years before the encounter of May 1975, he had seen newspaper accounts from various Jacksonville papers that described sightings of a similar creature and which themselves dated back a number of years.
Moreover, Hall discovered from an Argosy article written by cryptozoologist Ivan T. Sanderson that during the 1960s, while bow-hunting along the St Johns River, biology student Mary Lou Richardson, her father, and a friend had all seen a very peculiar animal with a great flat head, a rather small neck, and (in Sanderson's own opinion) the overall appearance of a donkey-sized dinosaur. Four other groups of tourists independently saw it during that same day, and enquiries revealed that this animal was well known to local fishermen and hunters. In short, Pinky was far from being the cryptozoological newcomer that it had initially seemed.
Reconstruction of Thescelosaurus (Nobu Tamura/Wikipedia)
Taking his lead from Sanderson's view, Hall has very tentatively sought to reconcile the perplexing Pinky with an undiscovered, living species of hypsilophodontid dinosaur called Thescelosaurus - an 11-ft-long bipedal dinosaur the size of a small car, with five fingers on each hand and five toes per foot, a long stiff tail, and characterised by rows of bony studs set in the skin along its back that may have given it a somewhat uneven, serrated appearance. One of the last known dinosaurs, it lived during the very late Cretaceous of western North America, and was related to the larger, more familiar Iguanodon.
Personally, I very much doubt that we need nominate anything as dramatic as a living dinosaur when seeking to unveil Pinky's identity - at least not until we have surveyed reports describing prominently pink mystery beasts of a herpetological persuasion from elsewhere in the U.S.A., for such beasts have been recorded far beyond the St Johns River of Florida.
HORNS AND HELLBENDERS
Two centuries ago, for example, strange creatures referred to loosely as giant pink lizards were frequently reported from southcentral Ohio's Scippo Creek by the first white settlers here. Hall's book Natural Mysteries (1991) presents a detailed investigation of these animals, concluding that they could well be the larval form of some undiscovered giant amphibian.
They were said to be at least 3 ft long but generally averaged 6-7 ft, were invariably pink in colour, sported large horns ("like a moose", according to one very startled eyewitness, a young carpenter), and were always associated with water. When their habitat suffered a great drought some time before 1820 that dried out many streams and wells, and suffered additional devastation via a terrible fire, the outcome was their extinction. If we equate these animals' 'horns' with prominent, branching external gills, rather like those of the much smaller axolotl of Mexico, these 'pink lizards' could indeed have been larval salamanders - but their size far exceeds any known species in North America, or anywhere else.
Nature writer Herbert Sass was a much more recent observer of a pink mystery beast in North America. While boating in or around 1928 with his wife Marion on Goose Creek lagoon, near Charleston, Sass saw something moving under the water, and when he succeeded in lifting part of its heavy bulk up out of the water on an oar they saw that it was bright salmon-pink and orange in colour, as thick as a man's lower thigh, with a smooth tail, and a pair of short legs like those of an alligator or salamander. Within moments, however, their mysterious captive had slipped off the oar, and back into the water. A 2-ft-long portion of a large worm-like beast of similar colouration to Sass's creature was briefly spied by Ivan Sanderson and his wife Sabina during the early 1970s, amid the dense water vegetation in a pond created from an artificial swamp on their farm at Warren County, New Jersey.
An orange-coloured specimen of the Chinese giant salamander
Speculation concerning the existence in North America of giant salamanders might seem just as risky as speculation regarding the presence here of living dinosaurs - were it not for the indisputable fact that the United States is already known to harbour one species of giant salamander - the euphoniously-named hellbender Cryptobranchus alleganiensis. Up to 29 in long, it is most closely related to a pair of even larger species, native to Asia's Far East - the Japanese giant salamander Andrias (=Megalobatrachus) japonicus (up to 5 ft long), and the Chinese A. davidianus (up to 6 ft long, and the world's biggest salamander).
The samurai Hanagami Danjo no jo Arakage in Izumo stabbing a giant salamander, by Utagawa Kuniyoshi
It is interesting to note that in his own report of his sighting, Sass described the creature that he briefly captured as a kind of giant hellbender, at least 5-6 ft long, because this grotesque species is also reminiscent of Pinky from Florida's St Johns River. Just like Pinky, the hellbender has a large flattened head, a long downward-curving mouth, loose folds of skin on its neck, and wrinkles along much of its body that could conceivably be mistaken for protruding bones during as brief a sighting as that of 10 May 1975. Moreover, the hellbender does indeed inhabit fast-flowing streams and rivers, and even in their well-aerated water it must still surface to gulp air every so often, because unlike various other salamanders it does not have external gills as an adult. And with a lifespan for this species of at least 30 years, a single specimen could have been responsible not only for the Pinky sighting of May 1975 but also for those predating it by more than 20 years.
Even its dissimilarities are not irreconcilable. Although the hellbender's official distribution range is from the Great Lakes through the eastern United States to Georgia and Louisiana, it would not be impossible for a population to remain undetected amid the little-traversed Florida swamplands. Interestingly, the concept of out-of-place giant salamanders has at least two notable if somewhat controversial precedents.
In or around 1939, a 25-30-in-long Andrias salamander was captured by a commercial fisherman in California's Sacramento River. Maintained alive for a time within a wooden trough suspended in the fisherman's own bathtub, it was examined by Stanford University herpetologist Dr George S. Myers, who felt that it differed in colouration from both of the two known modern-day species of Andrias. Thus, he speculated that although it could simply be an escapee from captivity, it may represent an unknown, native New World species - i.e. a relic from prehistoric times, when the zoogeographical range of the giant salamanders was much greater than its fragmented modern-day equivalent.
This latter identity, however, was challenged by Chico State College herpetologist Dr Thomas L. Rodgers, who announced that he too had inspected the Sacramento giant salamander, but had later learnt that it was in reality an absconded Chinese giant salamander called Benny - one of three A. davidianus specimens purchased by fish fancier Wong Hong somewhere in China. According to Charles Bjork, captain of the steamer Isleton, Benny had escaped while being transported through the straits on the way to Stockton Harbour. Even so, this does not explain the sighting of what was described by eyewitnesses as the "head of a gigantic lizard" emerging from the Sacramento River - in 1891.
19th-Century engraving of a Japanese giant salamander viewed underwater
Nor can it counter the longstanding belief that a deep lake in California's Trinity Alps is home to giant salamanders 5-9 ft long. Attorney Frank L. Griffith claimed to have spied five of them and even to have hooked one in the 1920s - due to its great size, however, he was unable to haul it out of the water. His story attracted Dr Rodgers's interest, who visited the lake four times hoping to see these beasts. Despite denouncing Myers's idea regarding the Sacramento specimen, he speculated that they may be a relict population of Andrias, but all that he found were some Dicamptodon salamanders - none more than 1 ft long.
Other searches have taken place since then, whose participants included in 1960 the Texan millionaire Tom Slick, a keen amateur cryptozoological investigator, but as no specimen of Andrias or the hellbender has so far been found here, the case for their existence remains unproven. Yet in view of its secretive, principally nocturnal lifestyle, it would not be too surprising for populations of hellbenders outside the species' known distribution range to have escaped detection, especially in little-explored swamps or high mountain lakes.
The extra-large size of some of North America's unidentified salamander-like beasts (pink or otherwise) is not a problem either, when seeking to identify them as hellbenders. Although the largest recorded specimens are under 3 ft, formerly there may have been much larger ones, whose greater size rendered them up as targets for early Western settlers eager to test their shooting capabilities upon these inoffensive, sluggish beasts. Record-size specimens of many different species have elicited similar attention from hunters in the past, the systematic killing of such specimens bringing about an eventual decrease in their species' average size (the gradual reduction in average total length of the much-hunted European giant catfish or wels Silurus glanis over the past century exemplifies this trend). In remote areas little-frequented by man, however, some reclusive giant specimens could still thrive, undisturbed.
Even the distinctive pink colour of most of the strange creatures reported here does not oppose a hellbender identity. Albinism is not uncommon among salamanders, and albinistic specimens normally exhibit a pink sheen due to the presence of blood coursing through their blood vessels beneath the outer skin layer. In the hellbender, the skin's supply of blood vessels is particularly pronounced - this extensive vascularisation enables the animal to obtain much of its oxygen requirements by direct absorption through its skin from the surrounding water of its aquatic domain. Hence an albinistic hellbender would be conspicuously pink. And because the genetics of albinism in salamanders (as in many other animals) are such that albino salamanders can only yield more albinos, all-pink populations would rapidly arise.
An unequivocally pink-coloured Chinese giant salamander (Zoological Society of London)
In contrast, Mark Hall mentioned that the pink colour of these mystery beasts could be due to their diet, as with the pink plumage of flamingos. This latter situation, however, is a very specific one, and there is no evidence to suggest that a similar phenomenon occurs in salamanders - whereas pet albino (and also leucistic) axolotls, for example, are often fed upon bright-red tubifex worms and various pink crustaceans, they never acquire the pigmentation of their prey.
Overall, therefore, a hellbender identity for the pink mystery beasts is the most satisfactory explanation available. Even so, there is still the matter of the Scippo Creek beasts' bizarre moose-like horns to resolve, because hellbenders have no such structures - when adult, even their gills are internal. Consequently, if the Scippo creatures' 'horns' are actually large external gills these animals would much more closely resemble a giant form of axolotl Ambystoma mexicanum - the best-known of the Mexican neotenic forms belonging to the tiger salamander complex.
Leucistic axolotls (as confirmed by their dark eyes) at Vancouver Aquarium (ZeWrestler/Wikipedia)
Under standard conditions, most salamanders metamorphose normally from the gilled larval salamander into the true adult, reproductive form. In the case of the axolotl, however, and especially if the pools in which it thrives are low in iodine, this metamorphosis is often halted, and the animal retains its larval form throughout its life, but nonetheless acquires the capability to reproduce and is thus said to be neotenic.
A neotenic, extra-large version of the hellbender might thus explain the pink mystery beasts of Scippo, but no such specimens have so far been formally documented. Moreover, not only are neotenic salamanders exclusively aquatic, but if they are lifted out of the water their gills flatten against their neck, thereby relinquishing their antler-like form.
And in any case, what of Pinky - with its very different, snail-like horns, and noticeably large eyes? Hellbenders have no such horns, and their eyes are very small. Could Pinky's horns be breathing tubes? If so, a hellbender with snorkels and protruding eyes is clearly taxonomically separate from the known species - so although a thriving Thescelosaurus dinosaur abroad in North America remains highly unlikely, the possibility of an unknown species of giant salamander lurking amid its vast swamplands may be worth further investigation.
Since writing the above section in 1995, I have encountered a number of photographs, such as those included here, which confirm that pink giant salamanders can and do exist. True, these are of the Chinese species (which, as Dr Darren Naish noted here in a Tetrapod Zoology post for 3 December 2010 on these amphibians, is more variable morphologically than is often realised), but their existence substantiates the likelihood that pink hellbenders, for the reasons already presented here, could also arise.
Moreover, American cryptozoologist Dale Drinnon has lately speculated that perhaps an unknown, giant form of one of North America's mudpuppies or waterdogs Necturus spp. may be responsible for some of the reports documented here. True, unlike the hellbender mudpuppies retain their external gills into adulthood as a normal occurrence, but these wholly aquatic salamanders are less than 1.5 ft long, so a giant form would require a proportionately greater increase in size than would be true for the hellbender.
A mudpuppy, showing its external gills
In 2008, veteran American cryptozoologist Loren Coleman conducted a search for Pinky in and around Florida's St Johns River, details concerning which can be found here.