New at the National Zoo: Live, hot salamanders. But no sex (yet).

A Japanese ambassador, elementary school students and zoo officials welcome the amphibians to Washington.
By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 23, 2010

Okay, time for some live lizard sex. Er, live amphibian sex.

The National Zoo unveiled its new breeding center for Japanese giant salamanders Thursday morning, and inside is some hot, steamy -- wait. They're in separate tanks? They're several years away from sexual maturity? Good thing the zoo's free.

Even if they were of age and unquarantined, it doesn't look as if the salamanders would be in the mood. One in particular acted stoned. It lolled around its tank, occasionally kicking one of its stunted limbs, smacking its flat, wide head directly into the acrylic wall, then floating backward, stunned or completely careless.

An animal keeper named Barbara lowered a freshwater smelt into the tank with a long pair of tongs. She dangled the snack in front of the salamander.

The salamander was nonplused.

Barbara tapped its face with the smelt. Look, food.

The salamander squiggled, unamused, although it's hard to read an animal's face when it does not appear to have one. With its beady eyes, ungainly body and sewage-colored skin, it looks like an evolutionary error. Yet it has survived for eons -- outlasting dinosaurs, empires, "Larry King Live" -- and now finds itself on the brink of endangerment and, therefore, in a sparsely furnished tank in the Reptile Discovery Center of the National Zoo, which plans to be the first facility to breed the boogers outside Japan.

Surely it must be easier to breed giant salamanders than giant pandas, right? Or do salamanders need to be roofied and artificially inseminated?

"We don't know how easy it will be because we haven't tried yet," said Ed Bronikowski, senior curator for the zoo. "We'll find out, I guess."

Bronikowski was one of many officials who praised the lugubrious amphibian Thursday, as the zoo displayed a quartet of salamanders given by the Asa Zoological Park in Hiroshima. The media were there. The Japanese ambassador to the United States was there. Children from Great Falls Elementary School were there with Crayola drawings of salamanders. There was a sushi spread in front of the nearby king cobra exhibit.

"An awe-inspiring and cool animal that represents hope," said Dennis W. Kelly, director of the zoo.

"It's a very special animal," Ambassador Ichiro Fujisaki concurred.

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