Public Release: 

Chemistry professor secures grant to explore the hidden habits of the three-toed amphiuma

Louisiana State University

BATON ROUGE - Long and brown with tiny easy-to-miss legs, you could mistake "Chrissy" for an eel or snake, but she is actually a three-toed amphiuma, a species of aquatic salamander often found in bottomland marshes, bayous and lakes along the Gulf of Mexico states. Unlike her fellow amphiumas, Chrissy resides in a large aquarium in the office of LSU Chemistry Professor John Pojman, an accomplished macromolecular chemist with a life-long fascination of reptiles and amphibians.

Often referred to as a "conger eel" or "congo snake," amphiumas are the second largest species of salamander in the world, reaching over a meter in length and 3 kg in mass. Rarely encountered on land, they hide in vegetation during the day and emerge at night to hunt. Their prey includes frogs, snakes, crawfish and, from time to time, other amphiumas. Little is still known about the animal's habits.

For the past six years, Pojman has studied a population of more than 50 animals living in a small Baton Rouge pond in an effort to learn more about the elusive three-toed amphiuma. To support this study, he has secured a $12,445 grant from the Coypu Foundation.

"The amphiuma are extremely common, but rarely observed because they are nocturnal and secretive," Pojman said.

His research - a collaboration with biologist Cliff Fontenot at Southeastern Louisiana University - has shown that amphiumas are extremely common, living in almost every body of water and ditch in Louisiana, including those on LSU's campus. Pojman's pet amphiuma was caught off of Burbank Drive, only a couple of miles from campus.

Although the animal is ubiquitous in the American Southeast, almost nothing is known about its life cycle. The Coypu grant will be used to buy traps, radio-transmitters and underwater cameras to document the habits of the amphiuma to determine whether they are territorial. Pojman will implant radio transmitters to track 20 amphiumas. A PIT tag reader will be used to record the animals as they pass the reader allowing Pojman and his research team to determine if the tagged animals remain in the pond or relocate to other waters. The researchers will also use a GoPro camera to capture video of the amphiumas interacting with each other and a hydrophone to determine if they communicate with sound.

Pojman's research team includes his 13-year-old son, John Jr., who has co-authored three papers with his father.

"At age 13, he already has an H-index of three," Pojman said.

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More information about the three-toed amphiuma can be found at http://www.amphiumas.org.

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