Part 1: A Campfire Legend
Sean P. Graham
It was probably the first time I felt like a biologist. My friend John Jensen invited me and a bunch of other folks to Pigeon Mountain in North Georgia looking for salamanders. Pigeon Mountain is a spur off Lookout Mountain, an 80-mile long flat-topped ridge that cuts all the way across the corner of three states. Pigeon is famous for having an endemic salamander species—the gorgeous Pigeon Mountain Salamander—but it also has another rarity found elsewhere in the Southeast: the Green Salamander.
In Georgia, both species are extremely rare, and the Pigeon Mountain Salamander is found nowhere else on earth. Both species are associated with the rock outcrops and caves of the mountain, which were under imminent threat. The mountain was not just threatened with pollution, clear-cutting, or exotic species, either. It was threatened with absolute destruction.
One section of the mountain already had an enormous gash in it—a hideous strip mine. The company responsible was talking about expanding their operations, adding more empty space where there was once a mountain. Now, some people would probably be okay with this depending on what they were mining. Perhaps if it was some rare mineral used for curing cancer, it would be worth it. But they were expanding their quarry for common road gravel. This was despite the fact that the mountain is owned by the state of Georgia and operated as a wildlife management area—public land. In one of the most ludicrous examples of a bureaucratic loophole on record, the state of Georgia owned the land, water, and air of Pigeon Mountain, but a mine owned everything underneath it. They could dynamite it at will, rare salamander or not. John was a Georgia nongame wildlife biologist and wanted to document any rare plant or animal species at the future expansion site, because if he could build a big enough case against it, the company might back down and get their gravel somewhere else.
For the search John paired me with some cavers, who were to look for new caves in the area. Caves too could be used as ammo against the mining company; after all, there are probably more people who care about caves than salamanders. At one point we came across a deep, conical sinkhole. They were sticking their faces in a hole so narrow that it would have given a groundhog pause before entering. At that time I was 23 and skinnier than I am now, and as the smallest of our group, I was volunteered to stick my head in the hole. The cavers held my legs and lowered me straight down. I couldn’t see anything, and I couldn’t feel the bottom. They spent the next fifteen minutes digging out the entrance wide enough to do their own examination. They tossed a rock in, and couldn’t hear the sound of it hitting the bottom. They talked excitedly, and swore me to secrecy. I tried to explain to them that they needn’t worry, because I wasn’t interested in caves enough to talk about it to anyone. I like going into caves to see salamanders, but for me it’s a means to an end. Caves scare the shit out of me. It turns out the cavers discovered a new cave that day, which had one of the deepest entrance pits in the eastern U.S. Its discovery was eventually featured in National Geographic.
We didn’t find Green Salamanders at the mine expansion area, but at another spot we eventually all got to see Pigeon Mountain Salamanders and a Green Salamander—clinging entirely upside-down like a fly under a cliff overhang—just after dark. This was a sheer rock overhang where both species were already known to occur, which in early spring had a waterfall showering over it. We called out finding salamanders over the throbbing thunder of the falls, and the billions of water droplets flickered in our headlamps.
Later that night, we did what most zoologists, cavers, and assorted adventurers do after a day in the field. We sat around a campfire talking and drinking beers. We discussed the plight of Pigeon Mountain and Green Salamanders, swore monstrously about the intentions of the mining company, and talked about conservation. The cave didn’t come up.
Carlos Camp was there, and I met him for the first time that night. He had a dissection tray with him and he showed us a series of salamanders he’d collected. To my eye, they all looked like Blackbelly Salamanders—Desmognathus quadramaculatus, a large type of dusky salamander found only in clear, cool, rocky mountain streams in the Southern Appalachians. However, Carlos told us that he was finding another, smaller version of this species along the streams of North Georgia. The smaller species eventually became known as the Dwarf Blackbelly Salamander, Desmognathus folkertsi.
It was terribly exciting for me—a recently graduated film student—to be present for all of this. I got to see a new species before anybody else knew about it. Then the topic of other new species came up.
John told us about the discovery of the Pigeon Mountain Salamander. Back in the late 1970s Carol Ruckdeschel was exploring Pettyjohn Cave at the base of Pigeon Mountain. Carol is an expert on Georgia’s Sea Turtles and her scientific research also disproved the old wives’ tale that Spanish moss hosts chiggers. Anyway, as she descended into the cave, Carol noticed several large salamanders, and by the light of her headlamp beam, she could tell these were clearly different than any salamander she’d ever seen. She decided to send specimens of this new salamander to a professor who was the expert on the genus. He wrote to her that they looked to him like typical, if oddly colored, Slimy Salamanders. A few years later, one of his students described the salamander as a new species—Plethodon petraeus, the Pigeon Mountain Salamander—with no mention of Carol’s discovery, not even in the acknowledgements.
I listened intently to the stories, and also to the early spring night-time sounds. The fire flickered and began to die, but the stories rolled on.
Then John brought up the Leopard Eel.
One night back in the 1990s, a tropical storm rolled through the Florida panhandle and dropped several inches of rain. John was driving along a small dike separating two marshy ponds near Florala, Alabama. Thin sheet flow washed over the road. There was something slithering there. Then there were hundreds of things. John got out to find dozens of amphiumas and sirens—eel-like salamanders—wriggling across the pavement. Amphiumas can be three feet long and have tiny, pathetic legs less than a centimeter long. Sirens can be equally long but have bushy external gills, and only a front pair of arms with no legs. Both bizarre salamanders are among the world’s largest and are occasionally turned up by local fisherman in the South who have understandably never seen nor heard of them.
In this particular case, John was seeing a beast new to science. The sirens wriggling across the road by the bushel were like nothing he’d ever seen. They were a bright yellowish-green color and had markings of a dark purplish-green. Legend had it they were yellow with purple polka dots. Some locals have seen this salamander and call it the leopard “eel,” but it is a type of siren.
John experienced what is known as a salamander jubilee. “Jubilee” is a term more appropriately reserved for those famous events along coastal areas when thousands of fish leap from the water onto the beach. Mobile Bay has a world famous jubilee, and when it occurs, red snapper, flounder, and other delicious fish appear to present themselves for consumption. The cause of these jubilees is fairly well known; during the summer, microorganisms grow to epic numbers and reduce the oxygen content of the bay’s shallow waters. The fish try to get out, and the party is on. The conditions that lead to salamander jubilees are still a mystery. John says it was the most incredible natural experience he’s ever witnessed, and John has seen a lot.
When I pressed John for more info on the Leopard Eel, he told me that he called an expert Florida herpetologist and told him about the jubilee, and was able to collect some specimens for him. This scientist was working on the formal description of the Leopard Eel. I eagerly awaited this paper.
Later that year I was taking a day off from my job as a camp counselor on nearby Lookout Mountain, and checked out the mine site again. I found a Green Salamander at the proposed expansion area. John now had ammo to thwart the mining company. That was 2001.
The state of Georgia bought the mining rights to Pigeon Mountain from the mining company about ten years ago, so the mountain and its salamanders are now relatively safe.
Part 2: The To-do List
Sean P. Graham
Years later, the experiences I had and people I met on those formative field trips looking for salamanders had inexorably steered my life. I was now a graduate student working toward a PhD in biology, and attending Auburn University in the footsteps of Jensen and Carlos Camp. This handwritten to-do list written on a dry erase board decorated one wall of me and Dave’s office at Auburn:
1.) Make checklists of amphibians and reptiles in Alabama’s National Forests
2.) Start ALAPARC
3.) Discover Leopard Eel
4.) Describe it
Dave Steen and I had become fast friends since he arrived at Auburn, and we were both PhD students in Craig Guyer’s lab. This meant that we had free reign to do just about anything we wanted. Craig was known for allowing a great deal of freedom over his graduate student’s dissertation research. We decided we’d use this freedom but also make sure we didn’t lose focus on our goal: to get our PhDs. So, we tried to hit every deadline early and get out in four years, something rare these days in academia. We developed a very friendly and productive rivalry, each toasting each other’s successes and striving for more. We developed our own ideas, and we had our to-do list.
We marked off the first items pretty early. We love checklists, and think they’re an important tool for conservation and public outreach. The first thing we do when we arrive at a national park is pick up a herp checklist, if there is one available. We thought there should be checklists for the herps of all the national forests in Alabama. We made them, and they’re now available at the national forest ranger stations. As to the second item, ALAPARC is the Alabama Chapter of Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (PARC), a national herp conservation organization. PARC is a relatively new group that we hope one day will be like an Audubon Society for herps. In our spare time, Dave and I founded an Alabama chapter and organized the first two ALAPARC meetings; ALAPARC is still kicking ten years later.
I can’t remember how, but on one of our evenings out the Florala jubilee came up. We were saddled up to one of the local bars where undergraduates never went so that we could have a conversation. Dave sat in disbelief, occasionally going wide-eyed, occasionally sipping his beer, as I told him the story John Jensen had told me. I mentioned that a guy was supposed to be describing the salamander, and Dave pressed me. When was the description coming out? How long ago did I first hear about it? I thought about it, and realized it had been six years since I’d heard about it. It had been twelve years since John had seen dozens of them writhing across the wet sheet flow near Florala. It turned out that the Auburn collections had several Leopard eels previously captured near Florala. The earliest one was captured in 1970 from the Fish River near Mobile. Robert Mount, the eminent Auburn herpetologist and author of the classic “Reptiles and Amphibians and Alabama”, had mentioned this specimen.in his book in 1975. He wrote simply that the Fish River specimen “does not conform” to the description of the Greater Siren. Still, the Leopard Eel was only known to a handful of Southeastern biologists, and it was therefore the stuff of lore. It may as well have been Bigfoot. Dave couldn’t believe it. The more I talked, the angrier he got. Who did this guy think he was? Ornithologists would have cut the throats of competitors to be the first to describe a new bird species in North America. And a bird with comparable uniqueness to this animal would have looked something like an Ostrich with polka dots.
So we decided to do it, and it made it onto our list.
It wasn’t going to be easy.
Guyer, our major professor, had found one—only one—after a massive survey in south Alabama and it had gotten away. It wriggled just out of his grasp while he was dip-netting a creek. Undeterred, we packed up an Auburn Biology Department van with seines, traps, and nets, and drove to Florala.
We stopped by the bridge over the creek where Guyer had spotted his Leopard Eel—the one that got away. We scouted from the bridge, and looked for ways to access the stream. The creek below was the color of black tea, its currents forming expressive swirls in the white sands. Sunken logs tugged at the tannic water. Slower backwaters had thick accumulations of last year’s crop of fallen leaves, and these were digested by microorganisms and swarms of insects into a thick gumbo of muck. Several kinds of large aquatic salamanders live in this distinctive habitat. I thought these “leaf packs” were probably the home of our quarry.
As we started breaking out the dip-nets, a local came up from across the road. He didn’t look happy.
“Ya’ll’re tresspassin,” he said.
“Are we?” I asked.
“Yes you are.”
“Well sir, we’re just down here from Auburn University, and wanted to go look for salamanders in the creek.”
“Ya’ll’re from the state,” he said. Our Bubba hated the government. Not just the federal government, either.
“We’re not from the state. We’re from Auburn.”
“Your license plate says ‘state government’.”
“That’s true, sir, but it says on our door that we’re from Auburn.”
“Ya’ll’re from the state.”
We were on the right-of-way of a public highway and could have stayed if we wanted. Surely, every week people went down and fished below that bridge. But we were from “the state,” and there was nothing we were going to say that would convince this guy to get off our back. So we left.
Next day we were at Florala State Park along the shores of Lake Jackson, one of the many Lake Jacksons in the Southeast. This Lake Jackson is a perfectly circular limesink lake, which are common in north Florida but are few and far between anywhere else. What really differentiated this lake, however, was that it was the scene of the siren jubilee that John Jensen had witnessed years before.
|The spot outside Florala, Alabama where John Jensen
had seen a siren jubilee in 1994.
We set a few crayfish traps out the night we arrived, at a culvert along the same road John had driven during the jubilee. Crayfish traps are tall, cone-shaped mesh contraptions with three small funnels at the bottom. Crayfish and other creatures, including amphiumas and sirens, crawl into the trap and can’t figure their way back out of the funnel.
We then rolled into the campground after dark. There was no attendant at the camp host station, so we decided to pay in the morning. We drank whiskey and told jokes, enjoyed the last winds of another damp Alabama summer, and went to sleep.
|There were often some parallels noted between our common
campground food and our amphibian quarry.
Next morning we broke camp. We didn’t see anybody at the camp host station, so we decided to get the hell out of there without paying. We drove down the road and checked our traps. We caught a hatchling Stinkpot Turtle. We got out our nets and seined up a massive Bowfin and some other fish, but found no Leopard Eels. We were driving to our next site when law enforcement caught up with us.
“You left the campground without paying.”
“Really? We thought it was free.”
The park rangers escorted us back to the campground, and watched us pay the exorbitant 20 dollars for a night on a bare patch of grass. We returned to Auburn empty handed.
I crossed Alabama north to south and east to west looking for salamanders during the four and a half years I spent as a PhD student at Auburn. Dave came with me for most of the trips, and he finished his PhD in four (but who’s counting?). I dug up all kinds of rare species where they weren’t known to occur. I found amphiumas and sirens all over the place. I never found the Leopard Eel.
Part 3: Discover the Leopard Eel
David A. Steen
Usually, when people ask me to tell a story they are hoping to hear one in particular: my first day of field work as a masters student studying freshwater turtles in upstate New York. Perhaps more specifically, the day my truck was totaled by a train. But, for those that know me well there is another occasional request: the time I caught a Leopard Eel.
After being asked to talk about my Leopard Eel, I’ll typically sigh, take a swig of beer, and then refuse while staring into the flames of the campfire. Maybe I’ll say to nobody in particular, “maybe after a few more.” You see, I get upset every time I think about this incredible animal and the fact that its description and the research that is sure to follow have been delayed for decades. Conservation organizations sometimes lament the fact that we are losing species before we even know they exist. Although we often imagine these species as being crushed under bulldozers as their tropical rainforest habitats are being destroyed, the truth is that it could be happening right now—not in the jungle, but in the wilds of the Florida panhandle.
Getting research published in reputable journals is a gratifying and rewarding experience. But who outside science cares about that? I was once asked by a well-meaning non-scientist when I was going to really do something special with my career and write something for National Geographic. When I talk about research people think all I do is catch giant pythons. More people than I can count have suggested that with a little luck maybe I will one day be as successful a biologist as the Crocodile Hunter, Steve Irwin. But there is one area of interest where the public’s perception of science and that of mine collide: the excitement and importance of discovering a new species.
These days, discovering a species often means long hours in the laboratory differentiating subtle genetic patterns between two groups of very similar animals. If there are differences, voila, a new species has just been discovered (this isn’t very exciting to me although I do think it is important work). No, to “really” discover a species you must trek into the wilderness and persevere against various poisonous threats and hostile locals to later emerge from the forest with an animal unlike anything anyone’s ever seen.
“Oh, this?” the intrepid explorer might ask when confronted by the curious hordes, “Oh, this is just a new bear I found.”
In this era, these types of discoveries are generally limited to relatively unexplored and tropical regions such as in southeastern Asia. But sometimes we are surprised by undescribed animals that have been right in front of us all along, or at least just a short drive from our homes. In this country, these new animals are usually salamanders. In 1960, a snail biologist noticed a large purple salamander within a south-Alabama ravine. A paper published the next year revealed that this animal was not just a new species, it was an entirely new genus: meet the Red Hills Salamander, Phaeognathus hubrichti. More recently, in 2007 a few students from the University of Georgia were mucking around in a North Georgia mountain stream and found a tiny salamander just a few centimeters long hiding under a rock. A paper published two years later demonstrated that this small diminutive salamander was also a wholly new genus: meet the Patch-nosed Salamander, Urspelerpes brucei. In both cases, formal descriptions of the new species quickly followed their discovery. And, why wouldn’t they?
My introduction to the Leopard Eel came in February of 2007 when I spent the day interviewing for a graduate position in Craig Guyer’s lab at Auburn University. Craig had started off our meeting by telling me that he had read my materials, spoke with my references, and was planning to accept me as a Ph.D. student for the upcoming fall semester so long as I didn’t do anything that day to change his mind. I didn’t know whether to interpret this as a sign that the pressure was on or off, but I made sure to be on my best behavior.
In any case, after we left Craig’s office he led me to the ancient eyesore hiding in the shadows of massive Jordan-Hare Football Stadium—the old brick building known simply as “Physiology.” This building was the temporary home of the university’s vertebrate collections while plans were being developed for their permanent home: the Auburn University Museum of Natural History. As we navigated through the building and past shelves covered in thousands of jars of pickled creatures, Craig suddenly stopped at one large jar and rapped it with his knuckle.
“This is a new species. It’s just waiting for someone to describe it.”
I must have stared open-mouthed at the tangle of eel-like animals packed in alcohol for a full minute. The animals were clearly sirens but they were unlike any I had ever seen or read about. Although the preservation process had taken a toll on the vitality of the specimens, I could make out a faint reticulated patterning that seemed to differentiate them from the relatively unadorned and solid-green Greater Siren, the closest thing I could think of to compare this animal to. I thought about that silent jar a lot in the coming days but my mind was more preoccupied with the prospect that there were likely more of these animals actually winding their way through the submerged swampy vegetation of the southeastern United States at that very moment. I had no experience with taxonomy or genetics and didn’t quite know what it would take to describe a new species but it was an exciting potential.
I was impressed by Auburn. Although I had spent the months leading up to my interview thinking about how to make my research ideas awesome, Craig needed only about 30 seconds to improve them and blow my mind. The lab members were intelligent, friendly and authentic; it was a good group of people. So, I was feeling generally positive about my experience when, during lunch on the last day of my interview, Sean leaned towards me and earnestly confided through a mouthful of pizza, “You should come here.”
We had only just met but I got the distinct impression that he was looking for a partner in crime and in herpetological hijinks. I was sold. The next day, I e-mailed the other graduate schools I was considering and politely withdrew my applications (I don’t think they were going to accept me anyway).
I found myself in the physiology building from time to time and I would often drift over to the jar containing the unnamed and unappreciated Leopard Eels and pause to gaze at them as I walked by. Over the course of my first semester at Auburn, I learned more about the history of the Leopard Eel, a history you have also learned by now. Two things were clear to Sean and I: first, we both wanted to take part in the description of this incredible new species, for its sake and for the sake of our own glory and aspiring careers and yet second, regardless of our enthusiasm, we simply did not have what we considered a legitimate claim on the species. We did not want to be a couple dudes who described a species by looking into a jar full of animals that someone else had collected. No, to have any credibility we would need to find this animal in the wild ourselves. And just like that, it was settled. How hard could it be?
By September of 2008 we had completed two unfruitful trips to Lake Jackson to find the Leopard Eel and I was preparing for my Ph.D. candidacy exams. These exams include a public seminar of the proposed dissertation research followed by a closed-door meeting with the dissertation committee so that they can test the limits of your knowledge and provide input on the proposed study. Two weeks before my exams I received a call from my co-advisor. She told me of a recent grant she and others had been awarded to describe how efforts to restore degraded longleaf pine forests—such as through the removal of hardwood trees and introduction of prescribed fire—have influenced the ecology of the system. She told me that the research was to take place on Eglin Air Force Base in the Florida panhandle.
I told my advisor that I would need some time to think about this, given I had spent months preparing to defend a completely different research project. I slumped in my office chair to wrestle with this existential crisis.
“Sean,” I asked through the divider that separated our desks, “what do you think about this?”
Sean patiently listened as I explained the situation and repeated back what he had heard to the other side of the divider.
“So you’re saying that you could lead a fully-funded, landscape-scale study on multiple wildlife groups in one of the most incredible locations in the world…and you’re not sure if you should go for it?”
“But I’m defending my proposal in two weeks, what am I supposed to do, give a seminar about a research project I know full-well I’m not going to do?”
I heard Sean get up from his chair, and his head appeared around the side of the divider. He simply shrugged his shoulders, and then sat back down.
That turned out to be exactly what happened.
In early 2009, my days working on Eglin Air Force Base started at about 4:30 AM so that I could be in the forest at dawn to listen for singing birds, the rest of the day I was checking reptile traps, and then at dusk I would visit wetlands to look for watersnakes. In theory, multiple and closely-related species shouldn’t co-exist because of high levels of competition when resources were limiting. Yet, the southeastern United States has many watersnakes within the same genus: Nerodia. I wanted to learn more about what prey these different Nerodia species were eating and how much their diet overlapped when they used the same habitat. To conduct the analyses I needed to answer these diet overlap questions, I needed to get a good handle on what kind of prey was available for snakes to eat. And, this required a lot of trapping for small fish and amphibians.
|The beaver pond where I saw my first live Leopard Eel.
To catch these animals, I used crayfish traps, the chimney-shaped traps Sean described in his last post. They didn’t look like much and were awkward to carry, but they were my preferred method for quantifying snake-prey availability. Wouldn’t you know it, but other researchers had previously noted that they also happened to be great for catching large aquatic salamanders like Greater Sirens and amphiumas.
My wetland snake project proved to be a bust. Watersnakes were just too few and far between. This kind of thing happens a lot in field biology. Sometimes things just don’t work out. But, the crayfish traps turned out to be highly effective at catching Loggerhead Musk Turtles. I decided to switch gears and study the turtles with a field assistant, settling on extensively sampling a small stream that had been turned into a pond through a combination of beaver activity and culvert construction.
My efforts were going swimmingly and by the end of September my field assistant and I had captured and released almost two-dozen turtles. Checking the traps became a routine. After we finished checking my drift fences for the day and on our way home, we’d simply pull off on the side of the road near the pond, throw on our waders, and trudge through the water to start lifting the traps. Any new turtles would be brought back to the field house to be marked and released the next day. Sweaty, muddy, and tired, we joked about the common perception of field biology as a glamorous career. It was about five months from the day I first put crayfish traps into the wetland I approached a trap and noticed a dark shadow within it.
My heart started racing as I lifted the trap in slow motion to reveal a glistening animal nearly two feet long. Largely green but with striking black reticulations, the animal’s external gills pressed against its body and its small legs propelled it around the trap. I have no recollection about what I said at that moment, but my assistant later affirmed it was nothing profound:
“That’s a Leopard Eel.”
I instinctively plunged the trap back into the water in a fear that exposing the siren would persuade it to squeeze its slimy skin through the mesh of the trap and escape into the water forever. The first thoughts I remember related to the conversations Sean and I had before our previous expeditions. If we caught a siren, how would we know that we had captured a Leopard Eel and not a Greater Siren, the well-known animal that occurs throughout Georgia and Florida? Perhaps these questions were grounded in the assumption that because the animal was not widely-known, it must look similar enough to Greater Sirens to allow them to blend in with this animal and elude identification from all except perhaps the most discerning herpetologists. Seeing the animal swim through the trap at my feet I almost laughed. It looked so different than a Greater Siren that it may as well have been a frog.
“I’m going to get my bucket.”
I imagined the Leopard Eel escaping for the entire time it took me to reach my truck and return with the bucket I have to hold venomous snakes. With the Leopard Eel safely secured within the bucket and after we made it back to the truck I finally allowed myself to take a breath. With it, I called Sean. I got his voicemail.
“I got one. You know what I’m talking about.”
Sean was in Florida within days. I had set the Leopard Eel up in a large plastic container in my garage, surrounded by about half a dozen similar containers holding amphiumas, because my field assistant was interested in developing some studies examining their behavior. When Sean arrived I immediately revealed an amphiuma and presented it to him with a flourish.
“Check it out, a Leopard Eel!”
Sean’s disappointment and revulsion with my amphibian identification skills were palpable as he spat out,
“That’s a fucking amphiuma…what the fuck?”
I didn’t have the poise to maintain the charade for long. I directed Sean to the correct container and then took a step back as he shrieked hysterically. I could barely make out the words, “Oh my God.” Shortly afterwards, Sean was crouching on the floor and holding his hands in the water while allowing the Leopard Eel to travel over them. He was squealing and giggling like he was the guest of honor at the world’s largest tickle party. After our years of searching, fate had called our bluff and presented us with a Leopard Eel. The question was, now what?
Part 4: Without a Name
Sean P. Graham
1.) Make National Forest Checklists
2.) Start ALAPARC
3.) Discover Leopard Eel
4.) Describe it
By the end of our graduate studies at Auburn, Dave and I had checked three of the four things off our to-do list. We finally had the animal in hand. There was only one thing left to do.
I contacted Ron Bonett, a collaborator who is an expert on salamander genetics. Ron and I had previously collaborated on a project comparing the genetic features of the Brownback Salamander. We wrote a paper about it and it was a real pleasure working with him. He was a super smart dude who really knew his stuff, but he was also a really low-key, nice guy. I knew he also worked on amphiumas and sirens. I told him what we’d found and that we were interested in describing this thing as a new species. At the very least Ron would need tissue from this salamander for any paper on sirens he’d want to publish. He wrote back and outlined a strategy. First, he would process a tissue sample from our salamander and see where it came out on the family tree of sirens. Then, we would contact Paul Moler, the Florida herpetologist who we had heard was also hoping to describe the Leopard Eel, and see if he wanted to collaborate with us. If he was struggling with some aspect of the study (which the 15 year delay suggested), surely he could use the enthusiasm of two fired-up graduate students and a salamander genetics guru to help him finish the job. We heard back from Ron that the other scientist had politely declined our offer to help. He said that his manuscript was almost finished and would be out by the end of the year. Although disappointed that we would not have the glory of describing the species, we were glad that the animal would finally be known to science.
I bumped into Moler a few weeks later at a conference. I just happened to end up in the buffet line right behind him. He politely introduced himself and we talked and the topic quickly turned to sirens. He explained what was taking so long in a kind of sheepish way, using some of the same phrases I’d used in the past when talking to friends about the salamander. Precise things like “the salamander could go extinct while we wait on its description,” and “we owe it to such a spectacular animal to get the project done.” I was flabbergasted. Somebody in our confidence must have told him what we were up to.
We backed down. There are two good reasons why academic scooping is uncommon. First, especially in herpetology, there is an unspoken expectation of propriety. When somebody has something cooking, we generally don’t butt in out of respect. And second, it’s risky to edge in on a big discovery, because if another group has a head start, they can pull the trigger on the discovery at any time. So we didn’t want to put in much effort into describing the species if somebody else already had a 15 year head start and was planning on finishing it at any moment.
That was 2009.
A year went by and there was still no sign of a formal description of the Leopard Eel. We couldn’t understand what could take so long. We started talking to Ron again. He said if we found some more sirens we could move forward. Perhaps we could offer co-authorship to Moler right before publication.
By this time Dave and I had largely moved on in our research interests. When we started our doctoral program at Auburn we were both under the impression that it would be the most significant challenge of our careers. That turned out to be incredibly naïve. For both of us, the real task was finding a job. We both continued on other projects and tried to get our careers going. The Leopard Eel faded into the background, a sort of embarrassment. Our friends would ask us how it was going. They soon learned not to ask.
But we never forgot about the Leopard Eel and wouldn’t you know it we eventually ended up back in Florala. We drove into the old grassy campground where we once got busted, this time making sure we paid in advance. Dave arrived a few minutes later in his trusty black truck.
“David! You sonofoabitch!” We shook hands in our traditional mid-air arm wrestle.
He had good torque on me for a second but I was able to push his arm over.
“What’s the matter, does your Virginia Tech postdoc have you pushing too many pencils?”
Dave had borrowed a fleet of souped-up crayfish traps, custom made by our specifications to ensure capture of our quarry. The mesh size was quite large in our original traps, so we had finer mesh laid down so smaller creatures couldn’t escape. And, we installed lids, so no siren could crawl out the top. We set ten traps in the marshes on either side of the jubilee road and retired for a night under the stars and the swaying boughs of cypresses bearded with Spanish moss.
We checked the traps the next morning. The first trap contained something long, dark, torsional. My heart raced. It was just an amphiuma. We caught several, one of which was mysteriously dead, with bite marks all over it. As though another amphiuma, or perhaps something else, had been in the trap with it, munched it to death, and simply let itself out of the trap. We headed back to camp, where I prepped the amphiuma and some other salamanders I was working on, and we started dinner. We had a great night telling jokes and stories, and of course we told the legend of the Leopard Eel to our friends who wondered why we chose Florala, Alabama for our camping weekend.
Please make note of the triple-take.
The next morning we caught three Leopard Eels.
I wish I could convey to you our excitement. The rush of lifting up our traps from the swirling, black murk, and seeing the serpentine bodies of huge salamanders unknown to the world. Seeing their bold chainlike pattern and big, bushy gills. Their small pin heads, and comically rotating arms. I waded out into the pond to pull traps and Dave pulled his traps from a kayak. True to form, we lifted out successful traps at nearly the same time. We hooted. I waded over to Dave and gave him a high five.
|Sirens are slimy and hard to pose with.
I enjoyed about five minutes of uncontrollable childlike thrill before the anxiety crept in. We got the animals secured and traps pulled and convened under a red maple. There was nothing stopping us now, and now the pressure was on. We had four individuals we could use for a genetic analysis, plus the specimens previously collected and housed at the Auburn museum. We needed to get out of there and get the specimens prepared and get the tissues to Ron. We apologized to our friends that our camping weekend was over.
Things moved fast. We accessioned the Leopard Eels at the Auburn University Museum of Natural History. A large adult female would serve as the type specimen, while the others were designated ‘paratypes’.
Ron suggested we send at least one paratype to another museum so we arranged for shipping one of our smaller Florala specimens to Berkeley. I spent the next several hours measuring Greater and Lesser Sirens from the Auburn Collections so that we could compare the physical features of the new species to those already described. Exhausted, I phoned Ron with all the news and suggested we get all the results in and have the manuscript submitted no later than the end of the week. When I look back on this now I smile to myself.
Ron told me that if we really wanted to get this done the next thing was to collect Greater Siren tissues from Alabama so that we would have a direct comparison. Although disappointed, Dave and I talked it over and we decided we were up for it. We were headed to Hutto Pond.
Hutto Pond is a few counties north of Florala and was the site of one of the only detailed studies on Greater Sirens ever completed. Dozens of specimens had been collected there. The landowners gave us access to the pond and even let us borrow their aluminum boat.
|Many, many hours were spent measuring
long-dead sirens for this study.
I took it out in the pond that night, and used a fishing pole to try to catch sirens while the glowing eyes of Alligators watched from the shallows. That was what the previous researchers at Hutto Pond did to catch dozens of Greater Sirens. We had no luck capturing adults, but dip-netted small individuals we hoped would satisfy Ron Bonett and his need for DNA. But I assumed they were just Lesser Sirens.
I couldn’t afford to spend any more time trying to catch sirens. I was busy with other projects and had to leave. By consulting museum records, I found there were actually a few Greater Sirens collected right up the road from Florala decades ago. I examined them and they were definitely Greater Sirens and not Leopard Eels. I was now hundreds of miles away from the site, and far as we knew, it had been decades since an adult Greater Siren had been captured in Alabama at all. And now Dave needed to catch some from one specific spot.
“Can you do it?” I asked him.
“I have to.” He replied.
|Siren habitat in Geneva County, Alabama.
I was in Tennessee with a field class a few weeks later when he called me.
“I got them.”
“You got what?”
“Greater Sirens. Geneva County. About seven miles northeast of Florala.”
“Holy shit, Dave, you’re the man!”
He described how he went to the pond I sent him to, but couldn’t find the landowner. So he found another one that looked good and the owner was there and fine with him trapping his pond. Next morning, he had two giant adult, fabulous, dull-colored Greater Sirens. We now had a strict genetic comparison between the new species from practically the same county! There was nothing stopping us. We shipped the tissue samples to Ron.
|The two Geneva County Greater Sirens.
That was 2014.
After hassling him with emails, I discovered that Ron was having trouble with the genetic analyses. I called him from my desk at Sul Ross State University, where I finally landed a faculty job in beautiful west Texas.
The good news was, it turned out the Sirens from Hutto Pond and Geneva County were all Greater Sirens. Now we had a direct comparison with all known sirens from the same region of Alabama. But Ron was getting baffling results, and could not resolve the placement of the Leopard Eel within the family tree of sirens. Worse, his results suggested the story with Greater Sirens and Lesser Sirens was much more complicated than anyone thought. Some specimens identified as Lesser Sirens were actually Greaters. And there appeared to be a whole lot more species in the group. Some of his analyses indicated several new species may need to be described. Ron wondered if we had more specimens from Texas if things would become clearer.
Things moved fast then. I reached out to Richard Kline, a professor down at the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley, who worked on sirens in Texas. To keep this story on track, I won’t mention that large sirens are known from the subtropical southern tip of Texas and nobody knowns what they are, either. Rich joined our collaboration and provided tissue for Ron’s growing DNA analysis. Ron re-ran the analyses.
|One of the Geneva County Greater Sirens.
Ron next suggested I needed to measure more sirens from the western part of their distribution to satisfy any concern that the Leopard Eel might actually be a strange variant of the western Lesser Siren. Even though I thought this idea was preposterous, I reached out to curators at the LSU and Arkansas State natural history museums and they shipped me sirens. I measured them. Our measurements showed that, without a statistical doubt, the Leopard Eel was physically different. We were closing in. We had our first draft done, and I sent it to Ron asking him to finish the genetic analyses.
That was 2015.
I would get emails from Dave asking me what was taking so long. My stomach would churn every time I thought about the goddamned salamanders. We were no longer worried that some guy from Florida would finally publish the description of the species before us because at this point anybody could be working on it.
Ron is a better scientist than Dave or I and he really wanted to work out all the relevant details of the phylogenetic tree and create a comprehensive and polished study. I sent an exasperated email to Ron explaining that we didn’t care if he sorted out the intricate relationships of all sirens. That was never the goal of our study. We only wanted to describe the Leopard Eel. We wanted the warm light of day to shine on it.
I said the thing that bothered me about this was the years.
So many years.
First collected in 1970.
First mentioned in the scientific literature in 1975.
John found them by the hundreds in 1994. The next year I graduated from High School. I met John the next year as a college freshman, and the path of my career, unbeknownst to me, was set.
I first heard about the salamander in 2001, when I graduated from college.
Dave caught our first Leopard Eel 8 years later.
Now it was closing in fast on ten more years, and we couldn’t get the damned thing finished either.
Part 5: World, Meet the Reticulated Siren
Sean P. Graham
To the ancients, sirens were feminine sea monsters who lured sailors to shoals with their beautiful voices. Carolus Linneaus, the founder of modern taxonomy and original describer of thousands of plant and animal species, coined the scientific name Sirenin 1766 for giant, eel-like salamanders of North America with only front legs and a long paddle-like tail—like the mermaids of old. It is said that sirens—the salamanders—also vocalize, but it is no sweet song. Just a brutish cluck.
The sirens of antiquity lured lovesick sailors to cliffs where their ships were dashed to pieces upon the rocks.
Years went by, and our scientific description of the Leopard Eel proceeded in uneven spurts. We’d work a little more and Ron would always have some new problem with the analysis and we’d go back to the drawing board. We felt like the goalposts for the study kept moving. We realized this sort of thing may have prevented Moler from describing the species in a timely fashion, and we were falling into the same trap. My patience was exhausted and Dave and I discussed an ultimatum. As lead author I was in a terrible position of satisfying Dave’s impatience while allowing for Ron’s requests for more data and more time. Being the first author on the paper is sometimes like being a cat cowboy. I was finally at my wit’s end and no longer cared what happened. I really just wanted it to be over. I came to the realization that I wouldn’t really care if somebody else named the species first. For years, that prospect haunted me. We put so much effort into the project, so it would be a shame if somebody scooped us. And we felt the sweet wisp of success so many times. As the ten-year anniversary of our first siren capture approached, I decided enough was enough.
I sent an email to all the co-authors on the paper, which now included my wife Crystal, who helped finalize the siren measurement analysis.
I wrote that I was convinced that the Leopard Eel was a new species, and even if our analyses didn’t completely resolve its relationship with other sirens, I didn’t care. That wasn’t the goal of our paper. Maybe if we described this spectacular new species, it would inspire new studies to sort out all of Ron’s confusing genetic patterns. And if we eventually found out we were wrong, and this siren was just a strange type of Greater or Lesser Siren, I was comfortable with being wrong. I asked that everyone finalize all analyses and finish the paper by the end of the month. And if anybody didn’t like it, I’d move their names from the authorship chain to the acknowledgments of the paper.
That was 2017.
All the other coauthors agreed it was a good strategy.
Ron called my bluff. He knew without his help the paper would be nearly impossible to finish. I tried emailing him and calling him. Nothing.
Dave reached out to Ron and he agreed to a conference call but never phoned in; in fact we never heard from him again and we never got our samples back. At this point Dave and I started becoming conspiracy theorists and wondered whether Ron was working on the siren without us.
That was March 2018.
We decided to go forward with a much more limited genetic analysis using Rich’s expertise. We were finally able to submit the paper during the summer of 2018. I had to turn over the finishing touches to Dave because I no longer had time to work on papers due to my heavy teaching load. And it caused me anxiety to even think of the paper anymore.
Dave submitted our description of the Leopard Eel for publication. We received critical reviews from four reviewers early this summer. The reviewers pointed out that this was not a comprehensive paper and that it may have raised more questions than it answered, but begrudgingly admitted that we had done the necessary work to show that the Leopard Eel was different and the work we had done was technically sound. We were months late getting our response to the reviewer’s concerns back to the editor. At this point, delays like this were typical for us. I figured the editor would reject our paper on several grounds and dreaded having to reformat the paper for another journal.
But it was finally accepted, and the paper was published today. The Leopard Eel will forever be known as the Reticulated Siren, Siren reticulata. The name was Dave’s idea. We had originally toyed with the name Siren pardalis, in reference to the common name Leopard Eel. Or Siren mounti, after Robert Mount, who first wrote about the salamander back in 1975 and died in 2017. Or Siren guyeri, after our mentor. When Dave suggested Siren reticulata as the name I agreed immediately. I didn’t want to fight anymore. And I’m still worried we will somehow get scooped at the last minute.
Dave and I still collaborate. We both finally have jobs, although neither of us ever expected to be where we ended up. For some time it was very tough and we both feared we’d have to tell our parents that after all of our effort and education, we were going to just go work at a bar. I wrote a book about snakes. Dave wrote a book about snakes. Like old times, we still challenge each her, and we still support each other.
Now let me tell you what all of this was about. As Dave mentioned in his story, the place where the public’s view of science and our own views converge is the discovery of new species. The general public and most field biologists recognize its importance and think it’s cool. When we go home for Thanksgiving, and our parents and friends ask us what we’ve been up to, we try to describe our scientific findings and they are just too boring and esoteric to get across properly. We try to explain the nuances of snake physiology or ecosystem processes and their eyes glaze over. Dave and I both knew that if we got the Reticulated Siren described, we finally would have accomplished something great that everyone can understand. We found a giant salamander under everyone’s noses and described it as a new species. All this was ever about was Dave and I winning the state championships.
Dave has become something of a media hound since we left Auburn, launching a highly successful social media presence dedicated to conservation. The blog Living Alongside Wildlife, which you are now reading, has reached thousands of readers. Dave knows reporters, so he tipped them off about our siren story long before its publication.
My parents came out to west Texas for Thanksgiving this year, because Crystal and I named our new child the same week that the scientific journal finally accepted our name for the Reticulated Siren.
I sat down with my dad, and had my emails open, so I clicked at one near the top.
“Check this out.”
He leaned in, squinted, and asked, “What is this? I can’t read this.”
“It’s an email from a reporter for the New York Times. He says he wants to interview me about the Reticulated Siren.”
“What’s a Reticulated Siren?”
“It’s a new salamander species.”
Graham SP, Kline R, Steen DA, Kelehear C (2018) Description of an extant salamander from the Gulf Coastal Plain of North America: The Reticulated Siren, Siren reticulata. PLoS ONE 13(12): e0207460. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0207460