What has two short, thick arms, a mane of feathered gills, and a slender, marbled-green body resembling an eel as long as its leg? Can not you guess? Meet the reticulated siren, a huge salamander two and a half meters long, first described in an article published today in the magazine. PLoS ONE, from the remote and isolated woods of checkbooks in southern Alabama and the Florida Panhandle.
Sirens are a small family of unusual salamanders found throughout the southeastern US and parts of Mexico. They are entirely aquatic, live in marshes and ponds and maintain their external gills during adulthood. Ranging from a few centimeters to over a meter in length, the sirens have short anterior limbs and have completely abandoned the hind limbs, leaving only a long body and caudal fin resembling eels. Their name comes from the body plane of the adjacent mermaid and the occasional "sing" and croak.
The knowledge of the reticulated siren did not arise just overnight. For decades, the salamander had an almost mythical status in herpetology circles.
Sean Graham, a biologist at South Ross State University, author of American Cobras, and lead author of the new study, first heard about the enigmatic "leopard eel" in the early 2000s. "It was almost a rumor, almost like a unicorn," he said. "Some biologists were familiar with this and had seen it."
Hearing the stories of these biologists and seeing the handful of preserved specimens collected years ago left an impression. "I thought," Dammit, this is a great mermaid species that is obviously different, "boldly colored and crazy!", Said Graham. About ten years ago, while attending graduate school at Auburn University, he mentioned the possible existence of the siren for then-colleague David Steen, now an ecologist researcher at the Georgia Sea Turtle Center and co-author of the study.
"We wanted to describe this mysterious siren that others noticed as occurring in southern Alabama," Steen said. "But we had no real claim to the project; We knew that if we wanted to work with this species, we would have to find one in nature.
Graham and Steen periodically visited the supposed territory of the salamander, but returned empty-handed every time. So in 2009, Steen captured one in the Florida Panhandle.
"He just called me from scratch, left a message on my cell phone like" I have one, "Graham said." I knew exactly what he meant and I drove right there. "
The captured salamander was visually stunning, with the skin smeared with crosslinks, instead of the dark and opaque tone. But to make sure the siren was unique, Graham and Steen would need more specimens.
Five years later, after much research in the area, the researchers took three more sirens in a Florida lake. Armed with these specimens, along with three others that were captured in Alabama in the 1970s and preserved in a museum collection, the team compared the physical characteristics of unusual sirens and DNA with other species.
It soon became clear that the salamander was a distinct new species, nicknamed Siren reticulata. In addition to its reticulated skin, the species has a smaller head than its relatives, and many other "costal grooves" of hugs at the sides.
At the risk of stating the obvious, a large, new vertebrate living right under our noses in the US is not something that happens much more.
"This is a big animal," said Graham, noting his status as one of the greatest living salamanders. "It should be one of the largest species discovered in North America in probably 100 years."
Although the discovery of such a large animal so recently may be surprising, the fact that it occurred in Alabama and the Florida Panhandle is specifically less. The region is a focus of endemism, with many other species found there and nowhere else, according to Alexa Warwick, an evolutionary amphibian biologist at Michigan State University who was not involved in the new study.
"The geology of the area really boosted the diversity of available habitat types and, in turn, the types of species we found throughout the region," Warwick explained.
The place is a mosaic of swamps of infiltration plants and pitchers, valleys, pine forests and springs, creating a unique evolutionary laboratory.
But if, like the Florida swamp toad, the reticulated siren is only found in some specific places in the enclave, that could put species at risk in the future, Graham said. Although there are reports of hundreds of sirens detected at isolated sites, there are currently no formal estimates of the size or distribution of the species population, and they may still be vulnerable.
"If they are plentiful sites in six known ponds, and a hurricane happens and a big storm blows salt water, that can wipe out half of their ponds," Graham said.
Now that the reticulated siren has been introduced into the world, it begins the crucial work of discovering its most basic natural history. "The formal description of a species is an essential first step in conservation," said Amber Pitt, a conservation ecologist at Trinity College, who was also not involved in the new study. "But now we need basic information about its distribution, population status and ecology."
It is believed that the new species eats what all mermaids eat (aquatic insects and mollusks), and lives in the same lakes and waterways where all sirens live. But more details about their habitat and range will require further research.
For the time being, the existence of the reticulated mermaid sheds light on the understated biodiversity of North America. The drainage of the Alabama River, by its size, has the greatest diversity of turtles from anywhere in the world. North America, in general, is the world's number 1 salamander – which Graham describes as our "best vertebrates" – with several entire families (including mermaids) found nowhere else on Earth.
"I consider salamanders our greatest export of vertebrates to the rest of the world," says Graham. "Salamanders have sprung up here and are incredible. People should know this and be proud of it. "
Jake BuehlerTwitter or in your blog.