Environmental Almanac: Patient photographer catches unusual find

Have you ever seen a siren? I don't mean one of the temptresses of Greek myth or the thing that makes noise atop an emergency vehicle. I mean the amphibian called a siren.

It's an eel-like creature that's actually a salamander. As adults, sirens get more than 2 feet long. They're somewhat variable in color but mostly dark, and they have two undersized front legs (but no rear legs) and external gills.

Like most residents of East Central Illinois, I've never seen a siren. But Jessica Runner of Danville has, and not a mile from her home. Here's how.

Runner is a busy mother of two young boys who manages the shoe department at Carson's and owns a landscaping business with her husband. But she also is a dedicated birder who has cultivated a growing passion for nature photography in recent years.

Often, when Runner has time off work, she drops by Heron Park, which is at the north end of Lake Vermilion and just minutes from her home by car. Its wetland complex makes an excellent spot for birding, and it hosts a rookery, where great blue herons nest.

One morning at the end of May this year as Runner approached the park in her car, she spotted a great blue heron stalking a meal in a shallow pond that borders the road. She quickly pulled over, and, using the car for a blind, photographed the bird over a period of 40 minutes as it worked to procure breakfast.

Great blue herons are patient hunters. They avoid spooking prey by moving extremely slowly until they're close enough to stab it with a quick extension of the neck.

Unfortunately for Runner, her own patience did not quite match the heron's, and her attention was focused on a family of wood ducks at the moment it struck. To her delight, however, the heron ran back toward her with its still-wriggling prize, and she was able to photograph the bird's battle to subdue it.

As she took pictures, Runner thought she was seeing her bird kill and then eat a snake. But when she later saw the images on a computer screen, she realized the snake-like creature had legs, so she forwarded them to a friend in Urbana. He identified it as a siren.

Runner wasn't the only person excited about her discovery. She contacted Chris Phillips at the Illinois Natural History Survey to tell him about her pictures, since the Survey's "Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles of Illinois" shows no records for sirens in Vermilion County.

"It goes to show you," Phillips said, "there are still some surprises out there for a herpetologist in the Midwest."

On one hand, he continued, it seems odd that sirens would turn up in Vermilion County because they are more common in the southern part of the state and along major rivers. Besides, he and other field scientists have studied the reptiles and amphibians of Vermilion County for decades and never been able to find sirens there before.

On the other hand, it's also a potential boon to have them located where they're so accessible for study by University of Illinois faculty and students. "It's only a 40-minute drive from campus," he pointed out, "and during high water, we could throw a trap into that pond right from the truck."

Sirens are weird creatures, and there is much to be learned about them. They maintain throughout life characteristics that most amphibians lose as adults: They continue to live in water, they keep their external gills and they develop only tiny front legs.

They can survive prolonged dry periods by encasing themselves in slime that forms an airtight sac and going dormant, but for how long, nobody knows. Nor have scientists ever witnessed their courtship and mating, so they can only speculate about that based on the siren's physical characteristics.

I suppose there are people for whom the discovery of an unexpected amphibian nearby causes no excitement, but I'm not among them. As the temperatures warm next summer, I look forward to helping catch sirens at Heron Park. Don't worry, if you're not there, I'll take pictures.

Environmental Almanac is a service of the University of Illinois School of Earth, Society and Environment, where Rob Kanter is communications coordinator. Environmental Almanac can be heard on WILL-AM 580 at 4:45 and 6:45 p.m. on Thursdays.

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crackerman wrote on November 06, 2012 at 3:11 pm

On two different occasions, me and a friend witnessed a Heron catching a rat from a what we guessed was some time of water runoff pipe entering a lake while fishing. It's fascinating what these creatures will eat. Now, every time we fish that lake we look for the Heron and the rats.