Geographical Range Southern United States, from eastern Texas to Alabama, north to southeastern Missouri
Habitat Swamps, marshes, bayous, lakes, ponds, drainage ditches, slow streams
Scientific Name Amphiuma tridactylum
Conservation Status Common

What looks like a long tube with four tiny legs and a pointed head? Here's another clue: It spends virtually all of its time in the still waters of the south-central United States. You guessed it! It's the amphiuma, the longest salamander in North America. There are three species of amphiuma, distinguished by the number of toes (one, two, or three), coloring, and length.

The three-toed amphiuma grows up to almost 42 inches long, including the tail. Its back is dark brown to black and the belly is light brown or gray; there is a dark patch on the throat. Like all adult amphiumas, its legs are so tiny that they are totally useless for walking.

But those stumpy legs don't slow down this amphibian, because the three-toed amphiuma spends almost all of its time in the water. It's a nocturnal animal, meaning it's active mainly at night. This is when the amphiuma can be seen in shallow water, foraging for food. Crayfish top the amphiuma's menu; other edibles include frogs, fish, snails, earthworms, spiders, and insects.

During the day, the three-toed amphiuma hangs out underwater, buried under submerged plants or tucked in a crayfish burrow. During dry periods, the amphiuma may burrow for months at a time without feeding. But whenever it's underwater, it has to make periodic trips to the surface to breathe air.

Like most aspects of the amphiuma's life, courtship and mating take place underwater. This generally happens in the winter and spring months, though it can also happen in the summer. Female amphiumas come to land to nest and lay their eggs, usually under a log near the water's edge. The female lays up to 200 or more eggs, and stays with them until they hatch in late summer to late fall (after four to five months of development). As with most amphibians, the eggs hatch into larvae. Amphiuma larvae have legs that are relatively longer than those of adults, and can actually be used for walking. After just three weeks, the amphiuma larvae lose their gills and begin to rely solely on their lungs for breathing.

Despite the impressive size of the adult amphiuma, this amphibian does have its natural enemies, like mudsnakes and cottonmouths. The amphiuma also has some human enemies: anglers who may accidentally catch and then kill the big salamander.

At this time, the three-toed amphiuma is considered to be common in the United States as a whole. However, in some states the species is considered rare and in need of protection, mainly because its wetland habitat is being destroyed. In Missouri, for instance, the three-toed amphiuma depends on cypress swamps, which have been lost at an alarming rate.

You can help the three-toed amphiuma by helping to protect its wetland habitat. And if you ever go fishing and happen to catch an amphiuma, release the animal unharmed.

Did You Know?

The amphiuma is sometimes called the "Congo eel." This name is misleading for a couple of reasons: first, because the amphiuma is an amphibian, not a fish; and second, because the amphiuma is found only in North America, not Africa.