Giant Salamander

The Giant Salamanders of California’s Trinity Alps have been reported for more than seven decades. Frank L. Griffith was one of the first modern witnesses. During the 1920s, Griffith was hunting deer near the head of the Trinity Alps’ New River. At the bottom of a lake there, Griffith spotted five salamanders ranging five to nine feet long. He caught one on a hook, but he could not pull it out of the river.

After hearing the story of Griffith’s Giant Salamanders, biologist Thomas L. Rodgers made four unsuccessful trips in 1948 to try to locate the animals. He had speculated that they might be an isolated group of Pacific giant salamanders, Dicamptodon, which never get to be much bigger than a foot long. He also thought they could be a relict population of Megalobatrachus, the Asian giant salamander, an animal measuring five to six feet. These inhabit swift-moving mountain streams in Japan and China, similar to those found in the Trinity Alps.

Herpetologist George S. Myers had learned of the Trinity Alps sighting and thought the Asian link made sense. Writing in a 1951 scientific journal, Myers recalled his encounter with a Giant Salamander captured in 1939 in the Sacramento River. Myers was called by a commercial fisherman who had found the animal in one of his catfish nets. Myers was able to examine the specimen carefully for half an hour or so. He noted that it was a different color from those found in the Japanese and Chinese species. It was dark brown, not slaty gray as the Asian types were, and it had dull yellow spots, whereas those on known giant salamanders are a darker gray. He wrote in Copeia 2 (1951):

The animal was a fine Megalobatrachus (unquestionably identified generically by its closed gill openings), in perfect condition… It was between twenty-five and thirty inches in length… The source of the specimen is, of course, unknown. Its strange coloration even suggested the possibility of a native Californian Megalobatrachus, which would not be zoogeographically surprising, but no other captures have been reported.

A few years later, animal handler Vern Harden of Pioneer, California, claimed he saw a dozen Giant Salamanders in a remote Trinity Alps lake called Hubbard Lake. He managed to hook one but had to release it because of a threatening snowstorm. A quick measurement revealed, however, the Giant Salamander’s length: an astonishing eight feet four inches. Though he had no evidence with which to back up his story, he related it to Stanford University biologist Victory Twitty. Twitty’s comment: “Spectacular, if true.” The reaction of Father Hubbard, the lake’s namesake, was: “Yes, I know Harden. He’s a nice fellow, and I think he ought to write fiction.”

But Father Hubbard was a formidable character. A Jesuit scholar, known throughout the world as the “Glacier Priest” because of his penchant for climbing the Alps of Europe, Hubbard was an explorer, naturalist, photographer, and popular lecturer. His best-known expeditions were made in Alaska during the 1930s.

When Father Hubbard took an interest in the Trinity Alps’ Giant Salamanders, the media listened. Despite Father Hubbard’s remark about Harden’s credibility, the priest did send the supposed witness to his brother, Captain John D. Hubbard. Father Hubbard noted that although the whole thing sounded fantastic, based on his examination of the growing body of eyewitness reports, he was fairly certain there were Giant Salamanders. “And next fall we expect to prove it,” the seventy-two-year-old Hubbard said at the time, “if I have to lead an expedition from the university myself.”

During 1958 and 1959, both Hubbards were believed to have been associated with a couple of expeditions in search of the Giant Salamanders. In 1960 Father Hubbard stated he had established the existence of huge amphibians in the Trinity region, but unfortunately no record of the Hubbard expeditions exists. Perhaps they never really occurred.

Tom Slick, though mainly interested in Bigfoot, also went looking for Giant Salamanders in 1960. Slick let it be known that he wanted to join the leagues of Giant Salamander seekers, and told the members of Slick’s Pacific Northwest Expedition to try to find one. They couldn’t. Some of his hired Bigfoot hunters became angry with Slick for what they saw as a silly side trip.

Meanwhile, on September 1, 1960, three zoology professors—Robert C. Stebbins of the University of California-Berkeley, Tom Rodgers of Chico State College, and Nathan Cohen of Modesto Junior College—left Willow Creek, California, on their own Giant Salamander expedition. A few years later Rodgers (who, as noted above, had also looked in 1948) would remember that they were accompanied by “ten laymen,” and some of them mistook logs for Giant Salamanders. He said the group collected only about a dozen Dicamptodons; the largest was eleven and one-half inches long.

The deeply skeptical Rodgers expressed the hope that “this evidence will kill rumors about any Giant Salamanders (much less Megalobatrachus) in the Trinity Mountains of California.” Rodgers’s official 1962 debunking seems to have ended most zoological interest in the Giant Salamanders of the Trinities.

That is, until recently. In 1997 the Kyle Mizokami Trinity Alps Giant Salamanders Expedition established itself as the latest effort in the area. Mizokami is a Japanese-American writer who has done extensive research on American Indian legends of what may be the Bigfoot. Much like Slick, Mizokami put aside his Bigfoot research to hunt for Giant Salamanders.

Perhaps the Giant Salamanders of the Trinities, if they exist, are American examples of Megalobatrachus. The amphibian family to which the Japanese and Chinese Megalobatrachus belongs is Cryptobrachidae. It has only one known North American member, Cryptobranchus, the Hellbender. It is the largest known American salamander, at some twenty-nine inches, but much smaller than the five and a half feet of the Asian giant salamanders. Like its cousins in China and Japan, the Hellbender is found in the mountains, namely the Appalachians and the Ozarks in the U.S.

Still, nothing like Megalobatrachus has been zoologically documented in the American West.


The Encyclopedia of Loch Monsters,Sasquatch, Chupacabras, and Other Authentic Mysteries of Nature
Written by Loren Coleman and Jerome Clark – Copyright 1999 Loren Coleman and Jerome Clark