EGLIN AFB — The base is one of just a handful of places in Florida and Alabama — thus far — where a newly named species of salamander has been discovered. But now that researchers know where to look, it's possible that the reticulated siren will be found elsewhere, according to a researcher involved in naming the unusual salamander.
"I think they're probably more abundant than suspected," said Sean Graham, an assistant professor of biology at Sul Ross State University in Texas. Graham is lead author of a paper published last week in the online science journal PLOS One
As described in the paper, the reticulated siren, part of the Sirenidae family of salamanders, "is very large, with the largest known specimen nearly two feet long, making it among the largest vertebrates described from the United States in over 100 years."
"The first time I saw one alive, I couldn't believe how different it was," Graham said.
Evidence of the new species has been around since at least 1970, when a specimen was collected from the Fish River in Baldwin County, Alabama. The rarely seen salamander has been known informally across the area as the "leopard eel," a reference to its distinctive markings. It was, in fact, the leopard-like markings that prompted researchers to name the salamander the "reticulated" siren.
The salamander's connection to Eglin Air Force Base was confirmed in 2009 when David Steen, then a graduate student at Auburn University, was studying loggerhead musk turtles. He had seen a reticulated siren specimen at Auburn before the species had a name, and on a September evening while checking turtle traps in a beaver pond on Eglin's reservation, he found one in the wild.
"My heart started racing as I lifted the trap in slow motion to reveal a glistening animal nearly two feet long," Steen wrote in a blog post. "Largely green but with striking black reticulations, the animal’s external gills pressed against its body and its small legs propelled it around the trap."
Despite their size — and their teeth — reticulated sirens pose no danger to humans, according to Graham, outside of the remote possibility that a fisherman who hooks into one might get bitten.
"I think they can probably bite," Graham said.
In addition to Eglin, the reticulated siren has been confirmed in just two other locations: in and around Lake Jackson on the state line between Florala, Alabama, and Paxton, Florida, and in the Fish River. Formal discovery and collection of the reticulated siren has been made difficult by the fact that it spends its life in mud and murky water.
But reticulated sirens "are probably locally abundant" Graham said. If the reticulated siren is like other Sirenidae salamanders, "there could be thousands" in any given area, he added.
In the wild, the reticulated siren provides valuable service as an aquatic scavenger and in insect control, Graham said. The salamander faces few predators, Graham said, outside of the mud snake and the occasional water bird.
In the world of scientific research, naming a new species "is a pretty big deal," he said. "The general public really loves this sort of thing."