When I think of sirens, the first thing that comes to mind is beautiful half-naked women luring sailors to their deaths. I don’t usually think about weird, eel-like salamanders who barely even have legs. But as strange as it may seem, there is a genus of animals called sirens, and they are definitely not gorgeous women.

There are only two species of siren around today: the greater siren and the lesser siren. Both species are found in the United States, with the greater siren ranging from Washington D.C. to Florida, and the lesser siren living in much of the eastern and southern US, as well as in northern Mexico. Being amphibians, sirens require access to water, and are usually found in shallow areas such a ponds, streams and ditches.

A pair of sirens, showing their gills, legs, and awesome spottiness.  Image source: http://www.stlzoo.org/animals/abouttheanimals/amphibians/salamandersandnewts/westernlessersiren/
A pair of lesser sirens, showing their gills, legs, and awesome spottiness.
Image source: http://www.stlzoo.org/animals/abouttheanimals/amphibians/salamandersandnewts/westernlessersiren/

Greater sirens are the bigger of the two species (no surprise there!). They are, in fact, one of the largest amphibians in North America, reaching almost a meter in length. Lesser sirens are not quite as impressive, only getting 68 cm long. Colours range from olive green to black, and lighter specimens have fun spots on them. They have a long body, and only one pair of very small legs near the head, positioned right behind the sirens’ external gills.

Sirens are nocturnal, spending their days hiding under rocks or burrowed in mud. They hunt small invertebrates, often just gulping large mouthfuls of stuff and filtering out food through their bronchial openings. Unusually for salamanders, sirens use sounds to communicate, emitting clicks when other sirens are around and using a shrill call when in danger.

A greater siren out of water. Image source: http://www.itsnature.org/sea/greater-siren/
A greater siren out of water.
Image source: http://www.itsnature.org/sea/greater-siren/

When you live in shallow waters, there’s always a risk that those waters will dry up. For an amphibian, that’s bad news. But sirens have a solution to that problem; they simply cocoon. When times get too dry for sirens, they burrow into the mud and secrete a substance that covers their bodies and prevents moisture loss. The sirens then enter a hibernation-like state, slowing down their metabolism so they can survive for months without water. Not a bad solution if you ask me — if times get tough, just sleep.

So even if they aren’t nasty women who trick men to their deaths, I’d say sirens are pretty cool. At least they’re much less dangerous than their mythical counterparts.

Cover image source: http://www.stlzoo.org/animals/abouttheanimals/amphibians/salamandersandnewts/westernlessersiren/

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