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Tracking an Ancient Treasure

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Imagine a nearly man-sized form, flattened, with tiny, gray eyes; a broad, diamond head; and a wide maw. The noxious-smelling skin is wrinkled, creamy gray to mottled black and ochre. Sensitive dermal bumps help locate prey. It is prehistoric and lurks only in certain streams in Japan. No, Virginia, there is no Godzilla... but the Japanese Giant Salamander does exist. And we are stalking it.

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Nocturnal, Andrias japonicus lumbers along the stony beds of clear-running creeks by night, hiding beneath banks and submerged rocks by day. Identical to 30-million-year-old skeletons, this giant living fossil inhabits Japan's main island, Honshu, and south into Kyushu and Shikoku.

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Habitat loss, pollution, and hybridization from its introduced cousin, the Chinese Giant Salamander, have taken a toll on this creature, listed as near-threatened by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, and a designated National Monument. The Japanese label applies to both living species and physical formations worthy of preservation. Being unabashedly passionate biologists, we are ardently hoping to see this rare, elusive amphibian in the wild. Would we? Luckily, we have friends.

We visit the main man behind the effort to preserve them. Takeyoshi Tochimoto is somewhat stocky, in his 60s, with a trailing, gray ponytail and an old, torn sweater. A former high-school teacher and aquarium worker, he started the Hanzaki Institute in southwestern Honshu decades ago when he realized he couldn't tell aquarium visitors much about this mysterious stream dweller.

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He now knows a bit more, having captured and imbedded microchips into hundreds, and followed several in the wild over 30 years. They get up to six feet long, 90 pounds in weight, and given their slow metabolism they rarely eat. Based on adult growth rate, he estimates they can live from 150 to 200 years... that's right, two centuries. These salamanders eat insects, fish, other amphibia, even the occasional snake, as well as each other. Males maul each other for females, often fatally; adults will maul any human hands within reach of their tiny, sharp teeth.

The local town hosts an annual hanzaki parade, selling hanzaki souvenirs, from wind socks to cookies. It and regional businesses finance the sprawling complex of outdoor pools and indoor aquaria. Takeyoshi rears several hundred young each season and releases them into the wild, hoping for the best, while catching and recording data on as many as 70 adults at night. He takes us on a late-afternoon tour. It's apparent that this is a big mission running on a shoestring budget; I donate a few thousand yen on the spot. Takeyoshi does not know whether we will see any that night -- nothing is guaranteed. We can only try.

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Dusk approaches as we head toward our local country inn. Not quite there, we are overtaken by Takeyoshi, who leads us back excitedly to the stream sidling the institute. Under an overhung light, a giant adult hanzaki can be discerned near a nesting burrow. The relatively brief sighting is awe-inspiring, as the animal merges into the murk beyond.

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Chilled but excited, we head back to the inn. Traditional arching tiled roofs crown the unheated inn, warmed by its owners and indoor hot spring baths. Behind the inn a 30-foot earthen-walled dam looms. Soon, we enter the cold traditional dining room of mats and low tables with our Japanese friends and Takeyoshi to experience the inn's famous wild boar feast: a hearty hotpot full of local mushrooms, greens, and thin-sliced wild boar, with wild deer jerky and local trout, fried whole and sashimi-style, on the side.

Warmed and full, we walk to a nearby stream soon after, where Takeyoshi hands out strong flashlights. Almost immediately, the first big one appears. Deftly netting it, he pulls it in, swipes its microchip, weighs it, measures it, and releases it, then resumes the hunt. Locals come with their lights, too, and the hunt is on, as all comb the banks and excitedly shout out new sightings.

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The waters teem with life: Large, opalescent koi calmly swim, as swarms of smaller fish dart about. Smaller, coal-grey salamanders with brilliant red, black-spotted bellies also appear. We rush from one sighting of the giant to another along the quarter-mile stretch, scoring seven in all. I can't control my jubilation and finally start shouting "bonzai!" to our hosts' amusement. We're lucky -- and we know it.

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