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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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
Jean-Marc Neveu and Olivier Civil never expected to find themselves battling against disposable mask pollution.
When they founded their recycling start-up Plaxtil in 2017, it was textile waste they set their sights on. The project developed a process that turned fabrics into a new recyclable material they describe as "ecological plastic."
Mounting Piles of Waste<p>It is not only the streets of Chatellerault where pandemic pollution is piling-up, but also the world's beaches and oceans. Once there, they can take up to 450 years to degrade and disappear.</p><p>Esther Röling, co-organizer of the annual Adventure Clean Up Challenge held on Hong Kong Island, has seen this waste firsthand. In October the sports challenge pitted teams against one another in a competition to remove trash from 13 hard-to-reach coastal areas around the city.</p><p>They find tons of both disposable and reusable masks, said Röling. "You wonder how it ended up there. Was it just thrown on the ground? Or was it in a garbage bag that broke open?"</p><p>Almost 10,000 kilometers away in Antibes on the sunny French Riviera, it's a similar picture. For the past few months, divers and clean-up volunteers working with an ocean clean-up non-profit called Operation Mer Propre have been collecting an increasing number of masks found on land and in the sea.</p><p>"Since the beginning of the lockdown when we started to count, we've reached 800, 900, [and now in total] 1000 masks," said co-founder Joko Peltier. </p><p>According to <a href="https://unctad.org/news/growing-plastic-pollution-wake-covid-19-how-trade-policy-can-help" target="_blank">UN estimates</a>, up to 75% of all coronavirus-related plastic could end up as waste in oceans and landfills.</p>
The Limits of Recycling<p>Yet not all are convinced the recycling of this waste is possible on a global scale. </p><p>"What those citizen groups are doing is really beneficial but once they collect it, it should just go to a landfill or an incinerator. They shouldn't necessarily expect it to get recycled," said Jonathan Krones, an industrial ecologist and visiting assistant professor of environmental studies at Boston College.</p><p>That's because mask recycling programs like Plaxtil are few and far between and most don't have the benefit of a readily adaptable production process. </p><p>Even in countries with solid recycling infrastructure, he says, the system is designed to separate out specific types of waste like bottles or cardboard.</p><p>"I imagine that it would be technically feasible to develop a separation process to filter out masks, but there simply aren't enough of them to make that economical," he said.</p><p>Collection is a big hurdle, he adds. Since each mask only weighs a fraction of a gram and they're scattered on roads or mixed with other trash, it is difficult and costly. </p><p>"You need a lot of raw material of the right quality to make investing in the recycling technology and the recycling system worthwhile," he said.<span></span><br></p>
Hemp, Sugar Cane and Sustainable Alternatives<p>Some projects are instead addressing the material used to make masks.</p><p>French company Geochanvre have created a mask made primarily from hemp, while in Australia, researchers at the Queensland University of Technology are experimenting with a disposable product made from agricultural waste. </p><p>Biodegradable options are exciting alternatives to reduce the fossil fuels needed for the creation of plastic-based masks, said Krones, but they don't absolve the wearer from the responsibility of what happens afterwards. </p><p>Bio-based masks often need their own composing solutions, he explains, because in landfill they can produce high amounts of the greenhouse gas methane when anaerobic bacteria feeds on the organic material. Methane is known to be significantly more potent than carbon dioxide.</p><p>"I think as long as we have in our mind that we want to have disposability, we're going to have to wrestle with a variety of different sorts of environmental tradeoffs," he said, adding that reusable, fabric masks are the best option available to most people.</p><p>Precimask is developing a clear face covering with an optional visor made from hard plastic, designed to be long-lasting.<br></p><p>Air enters either side of the cheeks through a technology normally found in pool filters and car exhaust systems, said company spokeswoman Juliette Chambet.</p><p>"We wanted to make ceramic-based filters that would be washable and cleanable, which would allow them to be reused as many times as desired without having to buy a new consumable or produce waste," she said. </p><p>Ultimately, encouraging mask wearers to think about the entire lifecycle of a mask is key, explains Neveu. </p><p>"We want people who put on the masks to realize that they are also responsible for the waste, he said. "It's not inevitable that this [pandemic] will become an environmental catastrophe.</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://www.dw.com/en/covid-19-recycling-pollution-trash-pandemic/a-55707817" target="_blank">Deutsche Welle</a>.</em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649032193#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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