Rumors of a two-foot-long spotted amphibian lurking in the swamps of northwestern Florida and southern Alabama circulated for years, but the eel-shaped amphibian with frills on its cheeks went largely unseen, unnamed and unstudied in the scientific community—until now. The elusive beast has been newly dubbed reticulated siren, or Siren reticulata, as researchers described for the first time in the journal PLOS One.
While at Auburn University, biologist David Steen and his fellow student Sean Graham began an obsession with the creatures when Steen’s advisor casually pointed out a weird salamander specimen in a jar saying that though it was labeled as a known species, the greater siren, he thought it was a new species. In fact, the species was something of a swamp legend, reports John R. Platt at Scientific American. As far back as 1975, at least one guidebook mentioned the possible presence of an unknown salamander that locals called the “leopard eel.” According to Asher Elbein at The New York Times, Graham heard a story about an Alabama biologist John Jensen who came across a flooded road one rainy night in 1994 to find hundreds of the mysterious leopard eels writhing on the road.
“The whole thing was kind of a campfire story,”says Graham, now a zoologist at Sul Ross State University in Texas. “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 duo managed to find a few possible specimens in regional museum collections, which helped them estimate the species range, but a live creature and DNA evidence, which is needed to make a formal scientific description of the animal, eluded them. That is, until 2009 when Steen, now conservation biologist at the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, pulled up one of his turtle traps in the swamps near Elgin Airforce Base in Okaloosa County, Florida, to find one of the mega-salamanders curled up at the bottom.
Without official academic support or grant money, Steen and Graham kept the creature alive, studying it and describing it while taking trips to the other swamps to try and capture more individuals. It wasn’t until 2014 when they collected three more live specimen from a marsh near Lake Jackson on the Alabama-Florida state line that they could begin officially describing the new creature in earnest.
The species, officially dubbed Siren reticulata, is similar to the other siren species found in North America, the greater and lesser sirens, which are large salamanders that have lost their hind legs but retained nubby forelegs, and have gills on the outside of their bodies. The reticulated siren is also completely aquatic and mostly sedentary, just hiding at the muddy bottoms of freshwater swamps, which may explain why it took so long to find and describe them.
“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 tells Jason Bittel at National Geographic. “It also seems as though they have a disproportionally-smaller head, as compared to other sirens.”
Beyond the physical description, the researchers know very little about the behavior or natural history of the siren. But they decided it was more important to let the world know about it—and perhaps protect it—first.
“We could wait another 10, 20, 30 years to figure out all the details about the species but we felt it was important to document it,” Steen tells Platt at Scientific American. “Maybe that will provide some incentives for people to do formal studies and surveys. As you know, you can’t afford formal protections to a species that people don’t even know about or don’t even recognize.”
It’s hard to say if the species is already threatened or endangered, but if it’s like other salamander species in the United States, it’s probably facing plenty of threats, including habitat degradation, logging and climate change.
And the reticulated siren may not be the only new species hiding out in the swamps. Steen says that the genetic testing they conducted on the species suggests there are other species of sirens hiding out in American rivers and swamps that have yet to be discovered or that have been misidentified in museum collections over the years.