Hidden away in the roots of a cypress tree in our swamp habitarium is a strange, eel-looking creature. Resting on the bottom of the swamp during the day, this odd animal becomes a fierce predator under the cover of darkness. This slimy swamp dweller is no eel (it’s not even a fish!), it is a giant salamander known as a Greater Siren!
Greater Sirens (Siren lacertina) are very unique amphibians, growing to over three feet long. Despite their large size, these salamanders closely resemble the larval form of other salamanders with their long eel-shaped body and frilly external gills. Sirens are easy to identify as they lack hind legs, and only bear two relatively weak forelimbs. The siren is named for it’s habit of shrieking or screaming when grabbed, in an attempt to startle predators.
Though sirens have been known to munch on vegetation, they are primarily carnivores, feeding on crayfish, insects, worms, snails, and even fish. And like fish, the siren uses a lateral line organ to locate its prey.
Sirens are aquatic animals, but they are well equipped to survive in harsh conditions. If a drought causes a shortage of water, the greater siren may burrow itself in the mud and aestivate. It will secrete a cocoon of mucus and shed skin to prevent further water loss, and slow down body functions by up to 70%. It can survive like this for up to two years, until water has returned to its habitat.
Be sure to visit all the amphibians at the Virginia Living Museum this summer, and check out our greater siren in our cypress swamp habitarium!