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Herps of SC/GA
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Stop #9: Welcome to Florida
Featured Herp: "Giant" Salamanders (Amphiuma and Siren)

lesser siren
Lesser siren (Siren intermedia)
greater siren
Greater siren (Siren lacertina)

It’s not easy hiking on trembling earth, but the East Aiken group managed to hike Trail Ridge down the east side of the Okefenokee Swamp. The North Prong of the St. Mary’s River flows southeast out of the Okefenokee, and the school followed it and crossed over into Nassau County in Florida, just west of Bryceville. With the Brady Bunch Swamp (OK, it’s really Brady Branch) and Crosby Bay nearby, it is a good area to search for this week’s animals, sirens and amphiumas, the East’s "giant" salamanders. The school arrived at their destination, about 14.5 miles (23.5 kilometers) west of Jacksonville, Florida, on November 1, 1999.

While in the Jacksonville area students learned of a truly neat project being conducted by other students at Sandalwood High School. The Sandalwood High students, under the direction of Mike Monlezun of the Jacksonville Herpetological Society and school principal Bill Gesdorf, have created the Sandalwood Gopher Tortoise Reserve (SGTR), a 900 sq. ft. pen that houses six Florida gopher tortoises (Gopherus polyphemus) in a natural setting. This gives the students and visitors of Sandalwood High School the opportunity to see these tortoises interact naturally.

The project director, teacher Mike Monlezun, has a herpetology club at the high school and has great plans to use the tortoise colony to help teach science. Said Mike,

"My goals for the facility are to include a webcam focused on the gopher tortoises and to build a remote control vehicle, equipped with sensors to drive down the gopher tortoise burrows to take a variety of measurements and video. Students will then take that information and make 3-D models of the burrows. I also want the students to work on literature that mentions all or almost all known inhabitants of the gopher tortoise burrows."

To learn more of this project visit the SGTR website, and to learn more about gopher tortoises continue on the SPARC journey to week 20.


Sirens and Amphiumas ("Giant" Salamanders)

hand holding captured amphiuma
amphiuma in aquarium

The "herp of the week" this week is more than one species. Actually, sirens and amphiumas belong to different genera (the plural of "genus"), and even to different families. Species, genera, families, orders, classes…these groupings are all part of a system of naming organisms. The system of "biological nomenclature" has a number of purposes, one of which is to help avoid confusion. When we name an organism with a common (non-Latin) name, that name is only useful so long as everybody else calls it by the same name. Chances are that the farther you go from your home turf, where most people use the same common names, the more likely it is that you will encounter folks who use different common names or even speak a different language.

So, for example, when we speak of giant salamanders (meaning sirens and amphiumas) in the eastern US, people who live in Oregon and Washington will say, "What are you—crazy? Giant salamanders don’t live in the East. Giant salamanders live in the Pacific Northwest. Get a map." OK, so they might not tell us to get a map, because they have such a reputation for being laid back, but they still might call us crazy. Common names can be confusing.

For example, one of the lesser-seen sirens in Florida, not to be confused with the Lesser Siren, is commonly called the Southern Dwarf Siren, although it is truly a member of the Giant Salamander group. Make sense?

The sirens and amphiumas that the East Aiken hikers could conceivably see on their trek through the Southeast include:

southeastern distribution (greater siren)
southeastern distribution (two-toed amphiuma)

Siren lacertina (greater siren)
Siren intermedia (lesser siren)
Psueudobranchus striatus (northern dwarf siren)
Psueudobranchus axanthus (southern dwarf siren)

Amphiuma means (two-toed amphiuma)
Amphiuma pholeter (one-toed amphiuma)
Amphiuma tridactylum (three-toed amphiuma)

Fun Facts…
  • The two-toed amphiuma is one of the largest salamanders in the world, reaching lengths up to 116 cm (almost 4 feet!).
  • Greater sirens have been known to survive more than five years without eating, and several years without water (in aestivation). Not only can they form a cocoon to stay alive, but also they rely on large amounts of stored fat and they can reduce their metabolic rate by 70%.

>Download the Giant Salamander Fact Sheet

Want to see a neat swampy salamander habitat in North Florida? Check out Mallory Swamp. Other Florida amphibians? See Nordevald "Native Florida" web site.

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