Rare Species Of Giant ‘Siren’ Salamander Discovered In Florida

Dubbed the reticulated siren, this salamander has Christmas-tree-shaped gills growing out of its head.

Siren reticulata paratype specimen captured in Okaloosa County, Florida.
Sean P. Graham, Richard Kline, David A. Steen, Crystal Kelehear / Wikimedia Commons/Resized (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Dubbed the reticulated siren, this salamander has Christmas-tree-shaped gills growing out of its head.

A new, exotic species of salamander has been discovered in the murky waters of Florida. Dubbed the reticulated siren (Siren reticulata), this bizarre creature looks a lot like salamander royalty, in the sense that it has glistening gray skin and wears a crown made of frilly fronds — external gills shaped like Christmas trees, as noticed by Live Science.

This unexpected discovery was announced on December 5, when the journal PLOS One published a study describing the new species. Found exclusively in Florida and Alabama, this unique salamander belongs to a family known as Sirenidae, or sirens — named after the sea nymphs of classic mythology who lured men to their deaths with their beguiling beauty.

Only four species of siren salamanders exist in the entire world, and all of them are endemic to North America. Similar to the rest of amphibian sirens, the reticulated siren is a giant. This lizard-like creature can grow to be up to two feet long, which makes it “one of the biggest amphibians in the world.”

In fact, according to the National Geographic, the newly discovered siren is one of the largest animal species to be described in the United States in more than a century. At the same time, the newfound salamander is the first species of siren to be announced in 44 years.

An Already Peculiar Family

Recounting the story of how it was discovered, study co-author David Steen refers to the newfound siren as a “mythical beast” that took years to find. His first encounter with the elusive siren was in 2009 in Florida, when Steen managed to capture one specimen. However, it wasn’t until 2014 that the scientist found three more reticulated sirens — enough to describe the new species.

While this species makes for an eccentric apparition to say the least, the entire siren family seems to be somewhat of an oddball in the salamander world, judging by the following description from National Geographic.

“Unlike most salamanders, sirens have lost their hindlimbs through millions of years of evolution. They wear their gills on the outside, which absorb oxygen from water in the murky ecosystems they inhabit. Sirens also lack eyelids and sport tiny, horny beaks instead of teeth.”

‘Leopard Eel’

As though this wasn’t puzzling enough, the reticulated siren sports an exotic mix of features that combine the elongated body of an eel with the trademark spots of a leopard. For this reason, the new species was informally referred to as the “leopard eel,” although it’s neither fish nor feline.

If anything, the reticulated siren resembles a fascinating cross between the lovable axolotl (Ambystoma mexicanum) and the spotted moray (Gymnothorax moringa) — the speckled species of eel that keeps getting stuck in young seals’ noses, as the Inquisitr recently reported.

“What immediately jumps out about the reticulated siren that makes it so different from currently-recognized species is its dark and reticulated [or net-like] pattern,” said Steen, who is a wildlife ecologist at the Georgia Sea Turtle Center. “It also seems as though they have a disproportionally-smaller head, as compared to other sirens.”

The new siren species has made a home in the shallow freshwater marshes and blackwater streams of northwestern Florida and southern Alabama, reports Sci-News. “To date, this species is only confirmed from three localities,” said study lead author Dr. Sean Graham, a researcher at Sul Ross State University in Texas.

One of the earliest sightings of a reticulated siren dates back to 1970, when the creature was spotted in the Fish River in Baldwin County, Alabama, notes Motherboard. The other two places where the salamander was found are a swamp in Florida’s Oskaloosa County and a large freshwater lime-sink lake on the border between Florida and Alabama.

“This is a big animal, and it’s only being described in 2018. There’s probably a lot more species for us to learn about — and we should do it quick [sic], before these things disappear,” said Steen.