Giant Salamanders

Author // Tony Categories // Tales from the Field

When we think of salamanders we think of small creatures that scurry away when we roll over rotten logs or other debris. Most people in the southeast don’t realize that we have two huge varieties of aquatic salamanders. Two species, the greater siren and the two-toed amphiuma may grow to massive sizes-the largest specimens reaching more than three feet in length. These amphibians spend most of their time hiding in weed-choked wetlands, slow-moving streams and Carolina bays, so they are rarely encountered. Sometimes sportsmen catch these large amphibians while fishing and assume that they are American eels (a species of fish). Two-toed Amphiumas or "Congo Eels" as they are often called, can be found in many of the wetland habitats in the lowcountry. These animals have miniscule front and back legs with two toes on each foot. These tiny limbs appear to be useless although they do move them while crawling forward with undulating movements of the body. Amphiumas feed on crayfish, aquatic invertebrates and other small animals that share their habitat. In extremely dry weather, when their habitat dries up, these salamanders can be found deep underground in wet mud remaining there until the wetland fills. Farmers occasionally unearth them during plowing activities in and around fields.

  Be sure to check out the video clip of a two-toed amphiuma from the Reptiles and Amphibians show.

Because they are similar in appearance and often occupy the same habitats, Greater sirens are sometimes mistaken for amphiumas. Two key differences are that sirens only have front legs and they also have featherly external gills. In general, sirens are a bit shorter than amphiumas with a stockier body. Greater sirens have the amazing ability to breathe underwater with gills as well as gulping air from the surface. These amphibians also feed on crayfish and other small animals. They have the ability to form a coccoon around their bodies to hold in moisture. This adaptation allows them to stay dormant in dry weather until the rains refill the wetlands.

Sirens and amphiumas belong to the extensive hidden biodiversity of the southeast. It is hard to believe that two such large animals are so infrequently seen. Although these two species are fairly common, very little is known about their natural history. More research is needed to determine what role they play in the ecosystem.

About the Author



Tony has been working in the field of environmental education for over two decades with emphasis on southeastern animals and plants. During his college years and after graduating from Georgia Southern University in 1985, he worked in a variety of positions as a naturalist in state and national parks and nature centers. Tony also worked for twenty years as the outreach program coordinator for the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory. His job included development and implementation of educational programs promoting ecological research to schools and the general public.

Tony now works as the education director for the LowCountry institute. His duties include co-teaching the Lowcountry Master Naturalist Program, producing and conducting educational programs for local schools, field trips and teacher workshops. He has written numerous newspaper columns and articles on local plants and animals for the popular media and co-wrote the book “Lizards and Crocodilians of the Southeast” (UGA press June 2009). Although Tony spends a major portion of his time teaching and writing, he continues his extensive field study with plants and animals of the southeast. Past research trips have taken him on excursions into the jungles of Mexico and Costa Rica to conduct studies on snakes and lizards and into the Everglades of South Florida to collect introduced pythons and endangered crocodiles.