New Species Discovered, A Swamp Creature Worthy Of Cinematic Stardom

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The reticulated siren is so mysterious to researchers that they didn’t even know how they reproduced until 2013. Like fish and unlike other salamanders, they fertilize eggs externally. Credit Pierson Hill

It has been a while since we saw news of a species discovery, and this is no small matter, so thanks to Asher Elbein for this:

A Salamander of Legend Emerges From Southern Swamps

The reticulated siren is the largest vertebrate discovered in the United States in decades.

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The newest named salamander in the animal kingdom: the reticulated siren. Credit David Steen

It’s eel-shaped and leopard-spotted, and it has no hind-limbs. It grows to two feet long. And yet until recently, hardly anyone had ever seen it.

A team of researchers has discovered of new species of salamander in the pine forests of northern Florida and southern Alabama. The so-called reticulated siren is the largest vertebrate found in the United States in decades, and the first new member of its family since 1944.

“It’s a really cool animal,” said David Steen, a conservation biologist at the Georgia Sea Turtle Center and an author of a genetic analysis of the salamander published in PLOS One. The salamander’s distinctive patterning “jumps out immediately,” he said.

Known for their size and bushy gills, sirens are a fixture in Southeastern swamps and watery ditches. Previously, Dr. Steen said, the genus was assumed to contain only two species: the lesser siren and greater siren, which can grow to three feet in length, one of the longest American salamanders.

But rumors of a third species have long persisted among reptile experts in Alabama and Florida. Informally called the leopard eel, one specimen ended up at Auburn University in 1970, misidentified as a greater siren.

In 1975, Robert Mount’s “Reptiles and Amphibians of Alabama” described an odd salamander that did not resemble the greater siren. Then on a rainy night in 1994, John Jensen, a biologist at the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, came across a flooded road in Florala, Ala., in which hundreds of leopard eels were squirming.

“The whole thing was kind of a campfire story,” said Sean Graham, a biologist at Sul Ross State University in Texas who helped lead the new study. “I was hearing rumors about it from people like Jensen, and then years would go by and I would never see a description of the species.”

The process of formally describing a new species scientifically involves publishing a careful description of its anatomy and genetics; official recognition is often crucial to encouraging further research and determining conservation protections…

Read the whole story here.

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