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.
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.