The Washington Times-Herald

November 20, 2013

The lesser siren of Indiana

The Washington Times-Herald

---- — While most of the salamanders found in Indiana live on land, we do have three species that are water-loving animals. They are the hellbender, which will be featured in a future column, the mudpuppy, also known as waterdog, and the western lesser siren.

The hellbender is quite rare, the siren, while not rare is little know, and the mudpuppy can be very common.

The lesser siren is a member of the siren family that also includes the dwarf siren found in Florida and parts of Georgia and South Carolina, and the greater siren. The latter species ranges along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts from Virginia to Alabama. It is much larger than the lesser siren and can reach a length of up to three and one half feet.The lesser siren can be anywhere from seven inches to two feet in length. The male is larger than the female.

I dare say unless you are a fisherman, most of you have never seen a siren lesser or great. I have only observed two in my lifetime, both in the Wabash River. Our native species is eel-like in appearance, some people may have observed one and thought it was an eel.

To tell a siren from an eel, the siren has a pair of small forelimbs and also has external gills which the eel lacks.

To tell a siren from an eel, the siren has a pair of small forelimbs and also has external gills which the eel lacks.

The western lesser siren, there is also an eastern and Rio Grande subspecies, ranges from brown, gray, to black in color. It has a pointed tail tip, while the rest of the tail is rather compressed. It lives in a variety of habitats that include swamps, sloughs, weedy ponds, and other shallow quiet waters.

In Indiana it is only found in the western sections of our state. Its range extends from the Ohio River up to the Michigan border. Southern Indiana counties where it has been found are Posey, Vanderburg, Gibson, Knox, Dubois, Daviess, Sullivan, Vigo and Clay. It probably also exists in both Pike and Martin counties, but there are no records from these two counties.

The lesser siren is a very interesting animal. It is the only salamander known to produce deliberate sounds. Its repertoire includes clicks, whistles, yelps and hisses. It also likes to jerk its head and when captured will squirm quite vigorously and may try to bite its captor. It is believed the rhythmic clicks which occurs under water, and is accompanied by vigorous head movements, may be a form of communication with other sirens.

Another rather unusual feature of the lesser is it starts to nest in late winter or very early spring in an underwater sheltered cavity. A female can produce as many as 200 to 700 eggs. When the eggs hatch, the young larvae are only around a half inch in length. It then takes up to two years to reach adult size.

This siren feeds upon snails, small fish, insect larvae, aquatic plants, crayfish, and after a hard rain, earthworms that have been washed into the water.

As this siren can be found in shallow water, if the area where it lives dries up during a drought it has a way to stay alive until its home fills back up with water. The siren will either burrow down into the mud or enter a crawfish hole to wait for the return of water. Glands in the skin of the siren are able to secrete a form of mucus which then coats the skin of this water salamander to help to avoid it from becoming dehydrated.

While the lesser siren is usually found in a watery habitat, it can leave the water and travel overland to another pond or wetland. This is how they can also now be seen in farm ponds or other artificial bodies of water.

The lesser siren is one of the most interesting yet little known animals found in Indiana. It can live for years in a body of water near your home and you may never know it is around. Some may have come in contact with one and believed it was a mudpuppy which I will also feature in a later column.

Indiana is indeed full of natural wonders that you can spend a lifetime exploring.