Geographical Range Alabama to central Texas, north in Mississippi Valley to Michigan
Habitat Streams, lakes, ponds, swamps, ditches
Scientific Name Siren intermedia nettingi
Conservation Status Common

At first glance, you may think this water-dwelling critter is an eel -- but guess again! This is a siren, a type of salamander found only in the southern and central United States and northeastern Mexico. A siren has two tiny front legs, no hind legs, and retains external gills throughout its life (unlike many amphibians, which lose their gills during metamorphosis).

There are four siren species and various subspecies, distinguished by geographic range, coloring, and size. The western lesser siren is confined to the southern and central United States. Its body is gray, brown, or olive with tiny black or dark brown dots. An adult can grow up to about 20 inches long.

The western lesser siren spends most of its time in the water. During the day, it remains hidden under submerged roots or aquatic plants. At night, it comes out to search for food at the water bottom -- small crayfish, snails, worms, and aquatic insects. But don't expect the siren to chomp its prey, because this salamander has no front teeth. Instead, the siren eats by sucking water and prey into its mouth, then swallowing the prey whole (think "vacuum cleaner").

During the summer, a siren that lives in a small body of water, like a pond or ditch, may find that its watery home is drying up. The salamander responds by aestivating, spending the hot months in a dormant state. While many animals simply burrow underground to aestivate, the siren goes through a special "transformation" after it burrows into the bottom mud. As the mud dries out, the mucous on the siren's skin hardens to form a cocoon that covers the whole body, except the mouth. The cocoon keeps the siren from drying out, and the animal can survive like this for weeks at a time, until its habitat fills with water again.

When it comes to coping with weather extremes, the siren has another trick. In the winter, this amphibian avoids freezing by burrowing in the water bottom and brumating -- similar to hibernating, but with periods of wakefulness.

As weather warms in the spring, western lesser sirens come out of brumation and breed. Siren courtship and mating remain something of a mystery because they've never been observed in the wild. Here's what we do know: In the spring, a female western lesser siren lays somewhere between 100 and 1,500 or more (!) eggs in bottom mud or on aquatic plants. After some 45 to 75 days, the eggs hatch into larvae that are half an inch long; the larvae mature in about two years.

At this time, western lesser sirens are fairly common in areas with appropriate wetland habitat. However, the U.S. continues to lose its wetlands at an alarming rate, and this could become a big problem for the siren in the future.

Did You Know?

The western lesser siren makes at least two distinct kinds of sounds: a "yelp" when captured, and a "click" when approaching another siren. The click sound is often accompanied by head-jerking movements, and may be used to defend a territory.