Scientists Confirm Existence of 'Mythical' Salamander Along Gulf Coast

This 'leopard eel' has been a slippery specimen for scientists. PLOS One

Science can move slowly, especially when it comes to proving a creature actually exists.

But that's just what scientists have done with the reticulated siren (Siren reticulata), a 2- to 3-foot-long salamander that has lurked in the waters of Florida and Alabama for decades without anyone being able to get their hands on it.

"It was basically this mythical beast," David Steen, a wildlife ecologist at the Georgia Sea Turtle Center and co-author of a paper that described the species, told National Geographic.

Passion project

Steen wasn't kidding about S. reticulata's stature. Locals had long referred to it as a leopard eel due to its spotted dorsal area, and Robert Mount's 1975 book "The Reptiles and Amphibians of Alabama" refers to an unnamed siren salamander that no one could prove actually existed. For more than a decade, people simply stopped looking for the creature.

Steen's interest in the creature was piqued in 2007 while he was a graduate student at Auburn University. His advisor had pointed out a large specimen jar to him and explained that, despite its label as a greater siren (Siren lacertina), it likely was a whole other species just waiting to be described. After that, Steen decided to go salamander hunting.

He and fellow Auburn graduate student Sean Graham — now a vertebrate zoologist at Sul Ross State University in Texas — began visiting areas where the elusive leopard eel had been spotted. They did this on their own time, without any funding. Using traps, Steen managed to capture one in 2009 at Eglin Air Force Base in western Florida. Steen was silent for a long moment after discovering the creature, according to his interview with National Geographic.

Sadly, it would be another five years until Steen and Graham would find any more specimens. Three were uncovered in 2014 Lake Jackson in Walton County, Florida, and that was enough to begin a proper study of the species, which took a few more years. (Steen and Graham recount the process for locating the salamander, rather hilariously sometimes, in a blog post they wrote together.)

Steen and Graham, along with two other researchers — Richard Kline at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and Crystal Kelehear also at Sul Ross — published their findings in PLOS One.

A big 'un

Sirens are among the largest of salamanders. S. lacertina, for instance, can grow to be up to three feet long (0.91 meters) and weigh around two pounds (0.91 kilograms). This family of salamanders are only found in the southeastern United States and northern Mexico. Completely aquatic, sirens have, unlike many salamanders, lost their hind legs. They wear their gills on the outside in a feathery tree sort of appearance, don't have eyelids and use a curved beak to break down snails and worms. They also have a croaking "song" that they belt out, hence the siren name.

S. reticulata has all those traits and a few more.

"What immediately jumps out about the reticulated siren that makes it so different from currently recognized species is its dark and reticulated [or net-like] pattern," Steen told National Geographic. "It also seems as though they have a disproportionally-smaller head, as compared to other sirens."

The creature may have a tiny head, but it could also very well be the largest animal described in the U.S. in more than a century, making the salamander a big find, both in size and scientific importance.