Five hundred years ago maps from the old-world showed fantastic mythical beasts lurking in the corners of the unknown sea. Artists' imaginations ran wild and concocted animals that reflected a hodge-podge of characteristics from more common critters like a wolf's head, lion's claws, the tusk's of wild boars, and the slender bodies of terrestrial snakes to create these maritime monsters. In our current age of scientific understanding and technology you might think that those days are gone and perhaps they are to a degree. Then again, Godzilla just hit the box office and caught the attention of thousands of movie goers and was quite successful in its first two weekends.
Why is this and what is the attraction? There is a lot in the natural world that is bizarre, unknown, or seldom seen. It provides the opportunity for the imagination to wander and wonder. On the coast recently there has been a variety of deep water fish that have surfaced, washed up on beach, or been caught on a fishing line. Megamouth sharks, lancetfish, and oarfish are a few of these unusual suspects that have been catching coastal headlines.
So what about our inland seas? Are there monsters that lurk in the murky waters of our marshes and swamps? If you've ever watched Animal Planet's, "River Monsters" you may know that Jeremy Wade uncovers some unusual species that have earned the local's respect and their own mythology. But, what's in our own backyard? Is there anything unusual?
In Missouri I think we do have an animal that could have inspired a cartographic sea monster with its enchanting mane of feathery gills, the muscular and slimy body of an eel, and miniscule front forearms of a coldblooded creature. Its name also reflects the age of Grecian fables and folklore where sirens rendered a call that could not be ignored by those who heard them. Seldom does anyone ever see this creature, few even know that it exists, and even less have ever heard this animal's call. I'm referring to the Lesser Siren that skulks in the tea colored waters of the Mingo Basin and other bottomland habitats.
I'll admit, I did a little embellishing with the description, but these truly are unique and intriguing critters. Sirens are a type of salamander that spend their entire lives in the water or buried in the mud. They have external gills like a mudpuppy, another kind of salamander, but lack any hind legs. Unlike other salamanders, they do make sounds, as their name indicates. It isn't anything overwhelming, but they make a series of yelps and clicks to sound the alarm or defend their turf. While we may not be impressed by the low acoustics, I'm sure in the salamander world it is the stuff of legends.
Lesser sirens live across the southeastern part of the United States and can occur in temporarily flooded pools to more permanently flooded swamps or sloughs. During times of drought they reside in crayfish burrows or dig down deep in the muck. An additional adaptation to drought is the ability to form a type of cocoon from mucous and skin cells that reduces dehydration and allows them to persist for several months until the rainy season floods their habitat. When habitats are flooded, sirens are typically active at night, which might be another reason most folks never see them. During this time they forage along the bottom of their flooded habitats looking for aquatic bugs, larvae, snails, and anything else that might work as food.
Over the last few years we've sampled various places on Duck Creek to examine the aquatic critters living under the water's surface. There has been a wide range fish, tadpoles, turtles, snakes, and salamanders found across the area. Lesser sirens are definitely one of the creatures in the mix.
Lesser sirens may not be new to science, but they certainly aren't in the running as the most recognizable species associated with the marsh. Despite their low profile these unique animals play a role in the food web and are resilient enough to live through variable wet and dry cycles that make our wetlands productive. With a little imagination and artistic enhancement I could totally see Godzilla have his hands full with the likes of a supersized siren in the next sequel. It would be epic!