Alligators and pythons, make way: Florida officially has a new swamp creature.
A paper published on Wednesday in the science journal PLOS ONE introduces the world to the reticulated siren, a new species of large, fully aquatic salamander.
Native to the swamps of southern Alabama and the Florida panhandle, Siren reticulata has spotted skin and tree-like facial appendages, and it can grow to be almost 2 feet long.
The salamander may sound like the stuff of legend, and, for some time, it was.
“It was basically this mythical beast,” David Steen, one of the co-authors of the paper, told National Geographic.
Sean Graham, another of the paper’s co-authors, first heard the legend of the “leopard eel” around a campfire in 2001.
A friend of Graham’s described witnessing something incredible after a tropical storm brought heavy rains to the Florida panhandle in the 1990s. He came upon hundreds of eel-like salamanders, a “bright yellowish-green color” with “markings of a dark purplish-green,” wriggling across a road between two marshy swamps.
Steen was first introduced to the creature during an interview for a graduate position at Auburn University in 2007. Herpetology professor Craig Guyer gave Steen a tour of the university’s vertebrate collections, stopping to point out one specimen.
“This is a new species. It’s just waiting for someone to describe it,” Guyer said, according to a post on Steen’s blog.
Graham was also completing his Ph.D. at Auburn, and he and Steen bonded over their fascination with the leopard eel, making a pact of sorts to discover and describe it.
The pair made several unsuccessful attempts to capture specimens of the animal during the first year of their friendship.
Then, Steen was on a field research outing in 2009. He set out to study water snakes, but his crayfish traps were better at catching loggerhead musk turtles, so he decided to study them instead. Five months later, one trap yielded something else entirely.
It was one of the storied leopard eels.
The catch led Steen and Graham on a nearly decade-long quest to document and describe the new species, which is further detailed on Steen’s blog, Living Alongside Wildlife.
The reticulated siren now becomes the third species in the genus Siren along with the greater siren (S. lacertina) and lesser siren (S. intermedia). It ranks among the largest amphibians in the world.
Documenting the new species raised many new questions, including whether there are even more species in the genus Siren than currently recognized.
Steen and Graham did not want to wait any longer to get the word out about their discovery, though.
The species faces potential threats from habitat loss in its native longleaf pine ecosystem, and protections are hard to come by for animals that do not technically exist.
“We hope the data we present here inspire others to prioritize further study of this group of fascinating amphibians and fund associated research,” reads the conclusion of the paper.