by Greg Mayer
Sean Graham, Richard Kline, David Steen, and Crystal Kelehear have just published a description of a new species of salamander from the Gulf Coast of Alabama and Florida (reference at bottom). It’s quite a handsome beast, with bold reticulations and an almost decorative frill of external gills.
It’s a species of siren, a type of permanently aquatic salamander that lacks hind legs and has three pairs of external gills. There are, with this new one, three species known in the genus Siren, all from the southeastern United States. The new species stands out for three reasons.
First, it’s a genuinely new discovery, not just elevating to species status a previously known subspecies or population of some other species. The new species, Siren reticulata, is at least broadly sympatric with both the Lesser Siren (Siren intermedia) and the Greater Siren (Siren lacertina), and the authors’ genetic analysis show it to be markedly distinct from both of these species. It thus seems to be a “good” biological species. Much of the “increase” in biodiversity these days, especially in biologically well-known regions such as North America, comes from changes in taxonomic rank, not actually finding a previously unknown form.
Second, it’s awfully large for a previously unknown species: around 60 cm total length, and that’s based on a sample of just 7 individuals used in the description. Again, this stands out because the beast is from North America, where there are lots of new species of small animals to be described, but not so many largish ones. It’s bigger than the Lesser Siren, but not as big as the Greater Siren (which gets up to a record size of about 1 m in total length). Of course, it’s likely that the new siren grows larger than can be judged from just 7 specimens.
Third, this is a sort of success story for cryptozoology. The “leopard eel” was at first only hinted at, but eventually was shown to exist. The existence of it was first intimated by Robert Mount, who, in his The Reptiles and Amphibians of Alabama (1975), had this to say about a siren he included in his discussion of the Greater Siren:
A siren tentatively assigned to S. lacertina collected in the Fish River in Baldwin County does not conform [to the description above]. This specimen, which has 39 costal grooves and is 520 mm long, has a silvery gray ground color. The back, sides, and tail are profusely marked with conspicuous dark gray spots and vermiculations. The venter is unmarked. Additional specimens from that locality, as well as some localities to the east, will be needed to determine whether the specimen on hand is correctly assigned to species.
A few other specimens over the years apparently sparked some interest, but it was not till Steen caught one in 2009 in Florida that serious work began, and now Graham, Steen, and colleagues have been able to confirm that there is a new species, and Mount’s suspicious specimen belongs to it—so good on ya, mates, to Graham and colleagues for solving a decades-old mystery! The case fits a classic cryptozoological scenario: a new animal is reported on insufficient evidence, stories and reports continue to come in, and then, finally, proof is brought to light—in this case, 7 salamanders, along with their attendant morphological and genetic data. I’m not sure if cryptozoologists will embrace this discovery, as they prefer their ‘cryptids’ (unknown animals) to be big, but it is big for a salamander, and a big one for the U.S.
As a common name, the authors propose “Reticulated Siren”, dismissing the name “Leopard Eel”, by which it was apparently known informally (perhaps when it was still just a cryptid). (Large aquatic salamanders with reduced legs are often called “eels” in the southern U.S.) If “Leopard Eel” is a genuine vernacular name, then I would suggest that that name be used. Common names should be just that: part of the language used by people who actually know the species. Standard English names (which many birders and some herpers have a passion for) are fine, but they should not be mistaken for common or vernacular names. Perhaps “Leopard Siren” would be an appropriate middle ground to serve as both type of name.
Graham S.P., R. Kline, D. A. Steen, and C. Kelehear. 2018. Description of an extant salamander from the Gulf Coastal Plain of North America: the Reticulated Siren, Siren reticulata. PLOS ONE 13(12): e0207460.
Mount, R.H. 1975. The Reptiles and Amphibians of Alabama. Auburn University Agricultural Experiment Station, Auburn, Alabama.