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Strange Creatures in Missouri

leah kirk

by David Casaletto, President/CEO, Ozarks Water Watch 

                Ozarks Water Watch held our board meeting a couple of weeks ago at Dogwood Canyon. I plan to write a future newsletter on the newly constructed buildings (banner picture above) and amenities that Dogwood has added this year. Our board meeting was held in an area that is primarily used as a classroom learning center for youth and in the hallway were aquariums containing various living creatures. But one aquarium contained a creature that does live in parts of Missouri. I not only have never seen this creature, but did not know it even existed.

                The three-toed amphiuma can grow to 42 inches long. It has a dark brown back and light brown belly. Like all adult amphiumas, its legs are so tiny that they are totally useless for walking. But those stumpy legs don't slow down this amphibian, because it spends almost all of its time in the water. It's mainly active at night in shallow water, foraging for food. During the day, the three-toed amphiuma hangs out underwater, buried under submerged plants or tucked in a crayfish burrow. During dry periods, the amphiuma may burrow for months at a time without feeding. But whenever it's underwater, it has to make periodic trips to the surface to breathe air.

                Like most aspects of the amphiuma's life, courtship and mating take place underwater. Female amphiumas come to land to nest and lay their eggs, usually under a log near the water's edge. The female lays up to 200 or more eggs, and stays with them until they hatch in late summer to late fall. As with most amphibians, the eggs hatch into larvae. Amphiuma larvae have legs that are relatively longer than those of adults, and can actually be used for walking. After just three weeks, the amphiuma larvae lose their gills and begin to rely solely on their lungs for breathing.

                Despite the impressive size of the adult amphiuma, this amphibian does have its natural enemies, like mudsnakes and cottonmouths. The amphiuma also has some human enemies: anglers who may accidentally catch and then kill the big salamander. If you are fishing and catch an amphiuma, cut the line and release it unharmed. Most amphibian populations are declining, none are venomous, and none threaten our fisheries. They are an integral part of our aquatic fauna. Yes, I admit, I learn something every day!