Swamp thing: Accidental catch of eel-like creature leads to Florida's strangest scientific discovery of 2018

A seldom-seen salamander with external gills on its head turns out to be a new species previously unknown to science, the "reticulated siren."
People in North Florida regarded it as a legend, a myth -- a slimy, two-foot-long swamp creature known as a “leopard eel.” Now two scientists have announced that it’s no myth -- and it’s not an eel, either. It’s a newly discovered species of salamander that they’re calling a “reticulated siren.” (Photo by Pierson Hill
People in North Florida regarded it as a legend, a myth -- a slimy, two-foot-long swamp creature known as a “leopard eel.” Now two scientists have announced that it’s no myth -- and it’s not an eel, either. It’s a newly discovered species of salamander that they’re calling a “reticulated siren.” (Photo by Pierson Hill
Published Jan. 2, 2019

For years, it was just a Florida myth, a legend no one took seriously. Panhandle residents called it "the leopard eel," a 2-foot-long, slimy creature with nubs where its front legs should be, spots all over its body and what appeared to be a set of wings on either side of its head.

Only a few people claimed to have seen one. The most intriguing story came from an Alabama biologist who said that on one rainy night in 1994, while driving near the Florida-Alabama border, he'd come across hundreds writhing in a flooded road. It was, he told fellow scientists, the most incredible natural experience he'd ever witnessed.

And then, in 2009, a biologist named David Steen accidentally caught one. He had set out wire mesh traps in the swamps around Eglin Air Force Base near Fort Walton Beach, looking for turtles. While checking one trap he discovered it contained one of the legendary creatures curled up in the bottom, apparently just waiting for him. He quickly stuck it back in the water so it wouldn't escape.

Over the next nine years, Steen and a colleague, Sean Graham, worked on their own time and with no official funding to verify their suspicion that this was a new species, previously undescribed by any scientist. They published their findings in December, announcing that it wasn't an eel after all, but a rare type of spotted salamander known as a siren.

"We name this species the Reticulated Siren, Siren reticulate," they wrote.

Their publication in the journal PLOS ONE set off a round of excited reports about this odd-looking swamp thing in the New York Times, the Washington Post and on CNN and NPR's Science Friday. Scientific American called their discovery "a highly unusual animal — and one of the largest vertebrates described in the United States or Canada in the past few decades."

Graham, in a blog post, wrote that "a bird with comparable uniqueness to this animal would have looked something like an ostrich with polka dots."

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The notion that such a big and bizarre-looking creature had existed mostly unnoticed in the Florida swamps for so long raises questions about what else might be out there that no one has officially identified.

For Steen, a research ecologist with the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, this is vindication for an obsession that dates back more than a decade.

When he was a graduate student at Auburn University, his adviser was showing him around the university's museum of natural history and rapped his knuckles on a large glass specimen jar labeled as a salamander species called "the greater siren." The adviser said he didn't think the specimen was identified correctly, and added, "It's probably a new species just waiting for someone to describe it."

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Steen and Graham, also an Auburn grad student who is now with Sul Ross State University in Texas, became fascinated by the possibility of finding that new species of siren in an age when most people think there's nothing new under the sun. It was, Graham wrote, "the stuff of lore. It may as well have been Bigfoot."

But they didn't strike pay dirt until Steen's accidental catch at Eglin. Steen said when he pulled up the trap and saw what he had, he reacted with "stunned silence. I'd been primed for this for years, waiting for just this moment, just to see this salamander that my friends thought was a legend."

When he regained the power to move, he transferred his find into a bucket and then into a big Tupperware container. When he showed what he'd caught to Graham, his colleague screamed hysterically and shouted, "Oh, my God!"

The animal's physical attributes were unusual, to say the least. Those wings on its head, for instance, were actually intricately branched, tree-like external gills. While technically an amphibian, the reticulated siren spends almost its entire life under water — another reason why it had been so hard to find.

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To officially identify a new species, though, Steen and Graham, needed more examples to study. In their spare time they hunted around Eglin, but found no more. They tried Conecuh National Forest in Alabama, where the Auburn jar creature had been caught, and around an Alabama lake near where the biologist had seen so many in a road. Still no luck.

Then, in 2014, while searching a marsh in northern Okaloosa County that's adjacent to the stateline lake, they caught three of the salamanders, enabling them to do the genetic testing and other studies required to prove it is a new species.

"I wish I could convey to you our excitement," Graham wrote. "The rush of lifting up our traps from the swirling, black murk, and seeing the serpentine bodies of huge salamanders unknown to the world."

Steen said he's hopeful now that they have named the creature, the state wildlife and environmental agencies in Alabama and Florida will be interested in learning more about them and whether they deserve endangered species protection.

No matter what happens next, Graham wrote, he and Steen have the satisfaction of making a bizarre scientific discovery that nobody else ever did: "We found a giant salamander under everyone's noses and described it as a new species."

Contact Craig Pittman at Follow @craigtimes.