Strange sirens have appeared for decades in the murky waters of Florida and Alabama—slippery, beaked, and dappled, with two front legs and ornate plumes of gills.
Like the myths of old, they enchanted those who sought them. Locals referred to them as “leopard eels,” but these very real sirens belonged to a family of aquatic salamander called Sirenidae.
The chimeric creatures have remained more or less a mystery. But now, in the closest ever look at these salamanders, scientists have finally given them a name: Siren reticulata (reticulated siren).
The salamanders were profiled in a paper published to PLOS One by a team of four researchers on Monday.
“They are some of the biggest amphibians in the world,” David Steen, a wildlife ecologist at the Georgia Sea Turtle Center and co-author of the paper, told Motherboard. “We are surrounded by them in the southeastern United States, and we know virtually nothing about their biology.”
Reticulated sirens are completely aquatic and are found in swamps and streams. The species has “an unusual morphology,” according to the paper—a serpentine body reaching lengths of two feet, and a head adorned with a crown of antler-like gills. In place of teeth, the salamander sports a horny beak. Like other sirens, its distinguishing feature is the absence of hind limbs.
Its most striking characteristic, however, is its darkly mottled or reticulated skin.
One of the earliest reports of the reticulated siren is from 1970 when it was found in the Fish River in Baldwin County, Alabama. Robert Marsh, the biologist who later examined the specimen, noted that it did “not conform” to another known Sirenidae, the greater siren.
“I think that was his conservative way of saying it might be something new,” Steen said.
In 2009, Steen managed to capture one while trapping turtles at Eglin Air Force Base in Okaloosa County, Florida. He snagged three more specimens in 2014 in a freshwater marsh near Lake Jackson in Walton County, Florida.
But the process of declaring a new species is no minor feat.
Steen and his colleagues first had to analyze its morphology and genetics to demonstrate its difference from closely related species. From 2009, it took eight years to eventually name S. reticulata.
And even so, little is known about the larger Sirenidae family. There are likely more undescribed species waiting to be discovered—a consequence of a lack of focus and funding for studying the animals, Steen said. He hopes the team’s findings will change that.
“It’s amazing that right now we living alongside millions of creatures that are the result of billions of years of evolution,” Steen added.
“Every creature you see is sharing this short blip of time with you and how incredible is it to see the variety of organisms around us and think about all the ways it has survived to get here.”
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