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New species of giant salamander described after decades of mystery

A reticulated siren from northwestern Florida. Image by Pierson Hill.

  • Scientists have described a new species of giant salamander that grows up to 60 centimeters (2 feet) long and is a type of siren, a group of eel-like salamanders that have only front limbs, and large, frilled gills behind their heads.
  • The formal description of the species, named the reticulated siren, comes after decades of surveys and exploration.
  • The researchers do not have a complete understanding of the reticulated siren yet, but given that much of its habitat lies in wetlands within the endangered longleaf pine ecosystem, the species is of conservation concern, they say.

Researchers have described a new species of giant salamander that has remained shrouded in mystery for several decades.

Known from swamps in Alabama and Florida in the southern United States, the new salamander grows up to 60 centimeters (2 feet) long and is a type of siren, a group of eel-like salamanders that have only front limbs and large, frilled gills poking out of their bodies, behind their heads.

Informally, people have long called the newly described salamander “leopard eels.” But since the species isn’t an eel (nor a leopard), herpetologists have now named it the reticulated siren (Siren reticulata) in a new study. The name comes from the dark spots that run in a reticulated pattern on the animal’s body, extending from the gills to the tail.

Sirens, today restricted to the southern United States and northeastern Mexico, are some of the largest amphibians in North America. The reticulated siren is “among the largest species described from the United States over the last 100 years,” researchers write in the paper.

The formal description of this species comes after decades of surveys and exploration.

David A. Steen, a research ecologist at the Georgia Sea Turtle Center and co-author of the new paper, was first introduced to the animal in 2007 when Craig Guyer, a biologist at Alabama’s Auburn University and Steen’s Ph.D. adviser, showed him a large jar full of eel-like animals at the university’s Museum of Natural History. Guyer “rapped it with his knuckle” and told Steen that it was a new species, “just waiting for someone to describe it,” Steen wrote in a blogpost.

“The animals were clearly sirens but they were unlike any I had ever seen or read about,” he added.

Robert H. Mount, an Alabama herpetologist, in his 1975 book The Reptiles and Amphibians of Alabama, noted that the first museum specimen of the same eel-like species collected in April 1970 from Alabama did “not conform” to descriptions of the greater siren (Slacertina), one of two Siren species known until recently. The other species is the lesser siren (Sintermedia).

A reticulated siren from northwestern Florida. Image by Pierson Hill.

It was only in 2009 that Steen caught his first reticulated siren in a trap that he’d set for turtles at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. When he showed the animal to his fellow graduate student, Sean Graham, now a vertebrate biologist at Sul Ross State University in Alpine, Texas, and lead author of the study, Graham “shrieked hysterically,” Steen recollected in the blogpost. Graham had first heard of the salamander in 2001.

The duo, however, had to wait until 2014 to finally collect three more individuals of the species. Then they had to wait another four years to conduct all the necessary analysis, in between other work commitments, to confirm that the salamander was indeed a new species.

“When we go home for Thanksgiving, and our parents and friends ask us what we’ve been up to, we try to describe our scientific findings and they are just too boring and esoteric to get across properly,” Graham wrote in the blogpost. “Dave and I both knew that if we got the Reticulated Siren described, we finally would have accomplished something great that everyone can understand. We found a giant salamander under everyone’s noses and described it as a new species.”

The researchers do not yet have a complete understanding of the reticulated siren. But since much of the species’ habitat lies in wetlands within the longleaf pine ecosystem, one of the most threatened ecosystems in North America, the researchers believe the reticulated siren is of conservation concern.

https://twitter.com/AlongsideWild/status/1070392572877524993

Banner image of reticulated siren by Pierson Hill.

Citation:

Graham, S. P., Kline, R., Steen, D. A., & Kelehear, C. (2018). Description of an extant salamander from the Gulf Coastal Plain of North America: The Reticulated Siren, Siren reticulata. PLOS ONE, 13(12), e0207460.