Swampy Thing: The Giant New Salamander Species Discovered in Florida and Alabama
By John R. Platt
Sometimes you go into a Florida swamp to study turtles and end up encountering a two-foot-long salamander previously undescribed by science.
That's what happened to biologist David Steen back in 2009 when he pulled up one of his turtle traps from the swampy waters around Elgin Air Force Base. The trap didn't contain turtles, but he did find a giant, eel-like salamander resting comfortably inside.
"It was just kind of sitting on the bottom of the trap, waiting patiently," Steen said.
Steen was a lot more excited than the animal in front of him. He knew he was looking at an amphibian few people had ever seen before.
Steen said he first started hearing rumors of a massive undiscovered salamander species during his graduate-student days at Alabama's Auburn University in early 2007. "My advisor, Craig Guyer, was showing me around their Museum of Natural History and he kind of tapped his knuckles on this big specimen jar," Steen recounted. The contents were labeled as another large salamander species, the greater siren (Siren lacertina), but Guyer suggested that it didn't look quite right. "He said it's probably a new species just waiting for someone to describe it."
Others, it turned out, had also suspected the presence of an unknown species. Locals have long spoken of a mysterious creature they called a "leopard eel," and Robert Mount's 1975 book The Reptiles and Amphibians of Alabama mentioned an unnamed siren, but no one had been able to prove its existence. For more than a decade, people had stopped looking.
Steen and another graduate student, Sean Graham, immediately started dreaming of solving the mystery. "We were scheming — how can we find one of these things?"
Easier said than done. They knew roughly where to look because of the museum samples and other accounts, but it still took more than two years before Steen found the single live salamander in 2009. Several failed attempts followed before they finally found three more specimens in 2014. Studying those four animals took a few more years, all work done on their own time and without an official research budget.
The hard work paid off, though. A paper by Steen, Graham and other researchers published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE describes the new species and names it the reticulated siren (S. reticulata). According to the paper the completely aquatic salamander lives in northwest Florida and southern Alabama and has a slimy, eel-like body with irregular spots on its skin, two forelegs, no back legs and a set of gills just behind its head. It's about the length of North America's largest salamander, the Hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis), but much slighter of build.
That all adds up to a highly unusual animal—and one of the largest vertebrates described in the U.S. or Canada in the past few decades.
"It was surreal to see after years of talking about this creature—it was kind of a mystical, mythical beast," Steen said. "It's so unlike most other creatures that we share the planet with."
Why did it take so long to discover a two-foot-long salamander? "I think it's a combination of things," said Steen, who is now the research ecologist at the George Sea Turtle Center and executive director of The Alongside Wildlife Foundation. "One, this creature is completely aquatic. It lives in swamps and mud. These are not really places where people spend a lot of their time. It's also superficially similar to another species, the greater siren, so unless you knew what you were looking for you would probably assume it was something we already knew."
The paper aims to change that. Although Steen acknowledges there's still a lot to learn about the new siren, he said it was time to bring its existence to the world's attention. "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. 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."
That possible future protection could be important. The paper doesn't get into the reticulated siren's potential conservation status, but a press release about the discovery calls it "at least vulnerable to population declines." That's because its habitat in the U.S. Southeast is increasingly under pressure from a growing human population, development, agriculture, logging, climate change and other threats.
At the same time, the new siren represents the Southeast's amazingly diverse treasure trove of species, said amphibian biologist Karen Lips from the University of Maryland, College Park, who was not affiliated with the study. "Every time I talk about salamanders, I put up a global map of salamander biodiversity and it just glows red in the southeastern U.S. It's ground zero for salamander diversity."
Many of those species are endangered or at risk, so Lips calls the discovery of the reticulated siren a "little ray of light." Although she expects the species might eventually be listed as endangered due to the relatively few encounters over the past decade, she's glad that it has now been described and named. "In the amphibian community, we all have undescribed specimens on our shelves for which we can't find the populations anymore. Even if this species is rare and endangered, it exists. That's good news."
And believe it or not, it might not be alone. Genetic tests conducted for the paper suggest that other undescribed giant siren salamander species may also be out there in the Southeast, waiting to be discovered. "We really need a formal revision of this entire family of salamanders so we can figure out their biology and their conservation status and bring them into the 21st century," Steen said.
That echoes Steen's final message about the siren: There are still numerous species yet to be discovered, and like their known counterparts they're all facing a growing number of threats. The time to save these species grows shorter with each passing year.
"We just don't know what we're losing because we haven't done the formal work to figure out what species are still out there," he said.
For at least one species, though, that first step has finally been taken.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Revelator.
By Dana M Bergstrom, Euan Ritchie, Lesley Hughes and Michael Depledge
In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were "on a collision course." Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a "safe space to operate." These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.
The Good and Bad News<p><span>Ecosystems consist of living and non-living components, and their interactions. They work like a super-complex engine: when some components are removed or stop working, knock-on consequences can lead to system failure.</span></p><p>Our study is based on measured data and observations, not modeling or predictions for the future. Encouragingly, not all ecosystems we examined have collapsed across their entire range. We still have, for instance, some intact reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, especially in deeper waters. And northern Australia has some of the most intact and least-modified stretches of savanna woodlands on Earth.</p><p><span>Still, collapses are happening, including in regions critical for growing food. This includes the </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/importance-murray-darling-basin/where-basin" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Murray-Darling Basin</a><span>, which covers around 14% of Australia's landmass. Its rivers and other freshwater systems support more than </span><a href="https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/latestproducts/94F2007584736094CA2574A50014B1B6?opendocument" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30% of Australia's food</a><span> production.</span></p><p><span></span><span>The effects of floods, fires, heatwaves and storms do not stop at farm gates; they're felt equally in agricultural areas and natural ecosystems. We shouldn't forget how towns ran out of </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/issues-murray-darling-basin/drought#effects" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">drinking water</a><span> during the recent drought.</span></p><p><span></span><span>Drinking water is also at risk when ecosystems collapse in our water catchments. In Victoria, for example, the degradation of giant </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/logging-must-stop-in-melbournes-biggest-water-supply-catchment-106922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mountain Ash forests</a><span> greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people's drinking water in Melbourne.</span></p><p>This is a dire <em data-redactor-tag="em">wake-up</em> call — not just a <em data-redactor-tag="em">warning</em>. Put bluntly, current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.</p><p><span>In investigating patterns of collapse, we found most ecosystems experience multiple, concurrent pressures from both global climate change and regional human impacts (such as land clearing). Pressures are often </span><a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13427" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">additive and extreme</a><span>.</span></p><p>Take the last 11 years in Western Australia as an example.</p><p>In the summer of 2010 and 2011, a <a href="https://theconversation.com/marine-heatwaves-are-getting-hotter-lasting-longer-and-doing-more-damage-95637" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heatwave</a> spanning more than 300,000 square kilometers ravaged both marine and land ecosystems. The extreme heat devastated forests and woodlands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This catastrophe was followed by two cyclones.</p><p>A record-breaking, marine heatwave in late 2019 dealt a further blow. And another marine heatwave is predicted for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/24/wa-coastline-facing-marine-heatwave-in-early-2021-csiro-predicts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this April</a>.</p>
What to Do About It?<p><span>Our brains trust comprises 38 experts from 21 universities, CSIRO and the federal Department of Agriculture Water and Environment. Beyond quantifying and reporting more doom and gloom, we asked the question: what can be done?</span></p><p>We devised a simple but tractable scheme called the 3As:</p><ul><li>Awareness of what is important</li><li>Anticipation of what is coming down the line</li><li>Action to stop the pressures or deal with impacts.</li></ul><p>In our paper, we identify positive actions to help protect or restore ecosystems. Many are already happening. In some cases, ecosystems might be better left to recover by themselves, such as coral after a cyclone.</p><p>In other cases, active human intervention will be required – for example, placing artificial nesting boxes for Carnaby's black cockatoos in areas where old trees have been <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/factsheet-carnabys-black-cockatoo-calyptorhynchus-latirostris" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">removed</a>.</p><p><span>"Future-ready" actions are also vital. This includes reinstating </span><a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/a-burning-question-fire/12395700" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultural burning practices</a><span>, which have </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/australia-you-have-unfinished-business-its-time-to-let-our-fire-people-care-for-this-land-135196" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">multiple values and benefits for Aboriginal communities</a><span> and can help minimize the risk and strength of bushfires.</span></p><p>It might also include replanting banks along the Murray River with species better suited to <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/my-garden-path---matt-hansen/12322978" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">warmer conditions</a>.</p><p>Some actions may be small and localized, but have substantial positive benefits.</p><p>For example, billions of migrating Bogong moths, the main summer food for critically endangered mountain pygmy possums, have not arrived in their typical numbers in Australian alpine regions in recent years. This was further exacerbated by the <a href="https://theconversation.com/six-million-hectares-of-threatened-species-habitat-up-in-smoke-129438" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019-20</a> fires. Brilliantly, <a href="https://www.zoo.org.au/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Zoos Victoria</a> anticipated this pressure and developed supplementary food — <a href="https://theconversation.com/looks-like-an-anzac-biscuit-tastes-like-a-protein-bar-bogong-bikkies-help-mountain-pygmy-possums-after-fire-131045" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bogong bikkies</a>.</p><p><span>Other more challenging, global or large-scale actions must address the </span><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iICpI9H0GkU&t=34s" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">root cause of environmental threats</a><span>, such as </span><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0504-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human population growth and per-capita consumption</a><span> of environmental resources.</span><br></p><p>We must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, remove or suppress invasive species such as <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mam.12080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">feral cats</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/the-buffel-kerfuffle-how-one-species-quietly-destroys-native-wildlife-and-cultural-sites-in-arid-australia-149456" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">buffel grass</a>, and stop widespread <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-reduce-fire-risk-and-meet-climate-targets-over-300-scientists-call-for-stronger-land-clearing-laws-113172" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">land clearing</a> and other forms of habitat destruction.</p>
Our Lives Depend On It<p>The multiple ecosystem collapses we have documented in Australia are a harbinger for <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/protected-areas/202102/natures-future-our-future-world-speaks" target="_blank">environments globally</a>.</p><p>The simplicity of the 3As is to show people <em>can</em> do something positive, either at the local level of a landcare group, or at the level of government departments and conservation agencies.</p><p>Our lives and those of our <a href="https://theconversation.com/children-are-our-future-and-the-planets-heres-how-you-can-teach-them-to-take-care-of-it-113759" target="_blank">children</a>, as well as our <a href="https://theconversation.com/taking-care-of-business-the-private-sector-is-waking-up-to-natures-value-153786" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">economies</a>, societies and <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-address-the-ecological-crisis-aboriginal-peoples-must-be-restored-as-custodians-of-country-108594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultures</a>, depend on it.</p><p>We simply cannot afford any further delay.</p><p><em><a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/dana-m-bergstrom-1008495" target="_blank" style="">Dana M Bergstrom</a> is a principal research scientist at the University of Wollongong. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/euan-ritchie-735" target="_blank" style="">Euan Ritchie</a> is a professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823" target="_blank">Lesley Hughes</a> is a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/michael-depledge-114659" target="_blank">Michael Depledge</a> is a professor and chair, Environment and Human Health, at the University of Exeter. </em></p><p><em>Disclosure statements: Dana Bergstrom works for the Australian Antarctic Division and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Wollongong. Her research including fieldwork on Macquarie Island and in Antarctica was supported by the Australian Antarctic Division.</em></p><p><em>Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council, The Australia and Pacific Science Foundation, Australian Geographic, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Euan Ritchie is a Director (Media Working Group) of the Ecological Society of Australia, and a member of the Australian Mammal Society.</em></p><p><em>Lesley Hughes receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a Director of WWF-Australia.</em></p><p><em>Michael Depledge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/existential-threat-to-our-survival-see-the-19-australian-ecosystems-already-collapsing-154077" target="_blank" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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