GIANT SALAMANDERS COULD BE ALL AROUND US

by Whit Gibbons

June 7, 2015

We watched in amazement as the prehistoric-looking creature nudged the mud alongside the creek with its nose and then in seconds vanished beneath the surface. It was a huge salamander, thick as a beer can and two-feet long. We were not in Australia, Africa, or South America. In fact, no such large salamander occurs on any of those continents. We were witnessing firsthand that local wildlife in the United States can sometimes be as fascinating as exotic species on a Discovery Channel nature show. We were watching a greater siren, one of the largest salamanders in the world, disappear into the bottom sediments of a creek.

My neighbor Jeff had called earlier to say he had caught a "lamp eel" in a trap he had set alongside our creek to catch fish. He said the animal had tiny little legs and some kind of head ornament, which turned out to be its external gills. When I got to Jeff's house he took me to the water bucket that he had wisely covered with a plastic top that he then put a brick on. He wondered if I wanted the critter. He knew we were doing an inventory of animals in and alongside of the creek.

Jeff knew what he had caught because he noticed that the animal had a pair of small forelegs but no hind legs, one of the few vertebrates in the world with such an arrangement of appendages. He said he had only seen one other lamp eel in his life, when he was a kid, but he knew that they got big, reaching lengths of more than 3 feet.

I reached down into the cold, dark waters of the bucket and felt a slippery, slimy, thick-bodied creature slide over my hand. I lifted it up and saw the red, feathery gills fluttering in the water. Sirens have small mouths, and I have never heard of one biting a person. We had just added a species to our list of creek salamanders—a greater siren. We had caught dozens of so-called lesser sirens, a similar species that usually gets only a foot or so long. But this was the first evidence we had that the giant species, something we had spent many months looking for, was actually in the creek.

For two years we have been surveying the animals in and around that same small creek and have found many kinds of amphibians. We know that 10 different species of frogs live there, and seven kinds of salamanders. Frogs are pretty obvious to most of us, not only because many species come out in the open so we see them when they jump into a lake in the daytime or climb on a window and look in at us at night. And frogs that are not seen are often heard, from the booming bullfrogs and chattering leopard frogs of summer to the higher-pitched chirps of spring peepers and other chorus frogs in winter. Frogs let you know they are around.

Salamanders, however, are silent, and few come out in daytime, being more likely to travel overland at night in the rain. Salamanders could even be thought of as shy, although their real agenda is keeping out of sight of predators that would readily eat a slow-moving soft-bodied morsel. In fact, of the hundreds of salamanders we have found in our surveys along the creek, we have never found one that was not under a log, board or some other groundcover. Animals that are so secretive as to seldom be seen do not receive the attention that more ostentatious species do. But they still deserve our appreciation when we get to meet them.

As I watched the greater siren slip silently beneath the mud, I marveled that such an animal could be in our midst without our being aware of it. And I wondered what other surprises the creek might hold in store for us.

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