Photo © Brian Gratwicke
I’ve long fostered a love affair with the Floridian wetlands. How the cool, damp foliage surrenders under the weight of a heavy hiking boot. The way invertebrates hum and buzz and strum, chorusing in all their vivaciousness under the moonglow of a still night. Green tree frogs, male, eager to spread their seeds, deflating their bloated vocal sacs to entice the nearby females. But, underneath all its audible bells and whistles, a more silent, yet equally enchanting creature moves through these southern wetlands—the amphiumas.
The only extant genus of the family Amphiumidae, they’ve been denoted by many as “congo” or “conger” eels. Which, as we know, is taxonomically incorrect; congrid eels, fish belonging to the genus Conger found in and around the Mediterranean, have no relationship to amphiumas.
Although, there’s no denying the fact: the two do look almost identical from even up-close.
So, for our little fire-side chat, we’ll be focused on the former mentioned amphibian.
Amphiumas—all three distinct species—are found primarily in the American south, spanning from eastern Texas to South Carolina. However the most widespread of the bunch, the two-toed species, can be found off the marshlands as far north as Virginia.
Their streamlined bodies are unapologetically well-adapted to propelling them through the slow moving waters they reside in. While increased urban development and sustained commercial and residential irrigation practices have strained (or, in some cases, completely wiped-out) their prefered habitats, they have, oddly enough, grown found of a new microhabitat—man-made drainage ditches.
(Because these somewhat shallow canals offer an ideal proximity to steady bodies of water, females have been known spawn and look after their young underneath the dense vegetation banking these canals. Prey items such as frogs, minnows, and crustaceans often either reside or travel through these high-traffic canals too, making for a constant food source for them.)
Amphiumas are among some of the longest, heaviest amphibians found in the continental United States. The three-toed amphiuma (Amphiuma tridactylum) is the single largest member of the family, with some examples reaching upwards of almost four-feet and tipping the scales at three-pounds; two-toed amphiumas (Amphiuma means) are slightly more diminutive in size, commonly reaching lengths of over two-feet and clocking-in at two-or-so pounds.
However, it the lesser, nine-inch dwarf one-toed amphiuma (Amphiuma pholeter) that’s perhaps the most interesting of the trio.
For one: we (science) know little about them. Their hunting habits remain enigmatic (although we suspect they share similar predatory behaviour to axolotl, as do the other two extant species); their habitat range is far from concretely known, but understood to populate much of southern Alabama and Georgia, and the Florida panhandle; they’re likely to be more dependent on balanced soil conditions due not only impart because of their size, but their diet of annelid worms too.
But all of the three extant species of amphiumas do have one struggle in common: they’re incredibly susceptible to population declines from climate change and soil acidification from human involvement.
And I yearn for a future where I, too, can bring my loved ones to these same wetlands—and find healthy, wriggling eel-like amphibians still thriving underneath the decomposing foliage.
By Matt Charnock