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Nature

Meet The Elusive “Leopard Eel” Salamander, Described At Last For Science

author

Katy Evans

Managing Editor

clockDec 7 2018, 11:57 UTC

It may not be a leopard or an eel, but at least it will never go out of style. David Steen

A brand new species of giant salamander has been found lurking in the murky waters of Florida. OK, technically, it’s not brand new, we’ve known about it since the 1970s, but the slippery creatures are very shy, and biologists never got round to officially describing it because they are just like you and me: They assumed someone else had done it already.

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Rumors of these elusive creatures had been heard throughout Florida and Alabama. Large, unusual spotted eel-like creatures with strange appendages poking out of the top of their heads.

“It was basically this mythical beast,” David Steen, co-author of the first paper to officially describe the creature, published in PLOS ONE, told National Geographic

Mythical? Nope. Turns out, sirens are real.

Of course, just like the red panda is not a panda, and the flying fox is neither a fox nor flies, the leopard eel is neither of those things. Siren reticulata is a member of the Siren family, aquatic salamanders that have very small forelimbs and no back limbs at all, instead developing long sinuous bodies, more like an eel.

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In fact, Sirenidae – which are only found in the southeastern US and Mexico – are not very similar to their salamander brethren at all, with some biologists believing they deserve their own suborder classification. 

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Our leopard spotted pal here was discovered back in the 1970s, with even a fleeting mention in a paper in 1975. However, co-author Sean Graham first heard about them in 2001, sat around a campfire with other biologists on a salamander-hunting field trip.

“One night back in the 1990s, a tropical storm rolled through the Florida panhandle and dropped several inches of rain,” the story begins, as written by Graham on his blog. His friend John Jensen, while driving in said rain, came across several eel-like creatures with strange fronds on their heads slithering across the road. He took one look and knew he’d found something new to science, but what the locals referred to as the “leopard eel”.

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“They were a bright yellowish-green color and had markings of a dark purplish-green,” Graham wrote. “Legend had it they were yellow with purple polka dots.”

In reality, they are more grayish-green, with darker bluey-gray markings, and jazzy external gills similar to everyone’s favorite smiley amphibian, the axolotl, though S. reticulata can reach lengths of over half a meter (2 feet).

Fast forward a few years and Graham and Steen decided if no one else was going to officially describe this creature as a new species, they would. They just needed to capture one to prove it. Steen caught his first leopard eel in 2008. All looked promising, and then they heard another biologist was looking into it. Conscious that they hadn’t actually “discovered” the new species they didn't want to step on anyone’s toes so they took a step back. That was 2009.

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By 2017, no paper had been published about the siren yet so the duo and colleagues forged ahead. March 2018, their lead geneticist drops out of touch, never to be heard from again. They forge ahead still, which brings us to December 2018. 

So, 50 years after it was first spotted, world, officially meet Siren reticulata, the leopard eel.


Nature
  • salamander,

  • leopard eel

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