27 March 2023 • Faculty The Intriguing Giant Salamander

Threatened species of salamander is the focus of Professor Lisa Yoshikawa’s work.

Professor of History and Asian Studies Lisa Yoshikawa authored a book chapter, “From colonial science to the genome age: the politics of Asian giant salamander conservation,” in Human-Animal Interactions in Anthropocene Asia (Routledge, 2023) edited by in Victor Teo.

The chapter explores the conservation crises of giant salamanders that are today endemic to southern China and western Japan, and which are among The International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species. In addition to examining the current political and environmental conundrums, the chapter looks at past imperialist politics’ contributions to the crises, including how various colonial scientists studied the creatures. It examines the impasse with an interdisciplinary lens, from the perspective of international and environmental histories, philosophy of science, and history of science that spans from 19th century morphology and taxonomy to 21st century molecular phylogenetics. 

“What intrigued my interest on this topic was why the giant salamander, which to many of us is not the most aesthetically pleasing creature at first sight, became such an international sensation in the 19th century and remains so today,” says Yoshikawa. “Other than their size that can reach six feet, what is so special about them, why are they heading toward extinction, and why is all this significant?  My article answers these questions.”

Yoshikawa says the chapter came about as part of her book project on knowledge production in Imperial Japan, specifically zoogeography (study of animal distribution over time and space) as an intersection of colonial expansion and scientific research. 

While researching for this article, she explored archives, libraries, museums, zoos and aquariums in five countries over three continents, and more than 10 prefectures in Japan including giant salamander research sites to interview scientists, politicians, bureaucrats and locals.

“It involved work with documents in six modern and three dead languages, which speaks to the broad significance of the creature across time and space. In addition to meeting fascinating people and non-human animals during my research, I had the pleasure to work with a group of talented global scholars for this edited volume that started as a workshop held in Hong Kong at the height of the 2019 student protests,” Yoshikawa explains.

As a scholar of imperial Japan, Yoshikawa is the recipient of a 2022-23 Fulbright Award to Taiwan. Her teaching interests span from the medieval Mongols to contemporary Asia-Pacific relations, and from national histories to transnational memory wars. Joining the HWS faculty in 2006, Yoshikawa earned her B.A. from Wellesley College and M.A., M.Phil., and Ph.D. from Yale University.

The photo above features a Chinese Giant Salamander that Professor Lisa Yoshikawa took while at the Zoological Society of London.