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.
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
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The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
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