One-toed Amphiuma The one-toed amphiuma (Amphiuma pholeter) is a rare type of salamander endemic to the Florida panhandle, southern Georgia, and Alabama’s coastal region. In Alabama, it is found only in Mobile and Baldwin Counties. This amphiuma gets its name from the single toe on its atypically short front limbs, giving it an almost snake-like appearance. The genus name comes from the Latin for “both” and the Greek for “breath,” because breathes one way as a larvae and another as an adult, and the species name comes from the Greek for “one who lurks in holes.” The one-toed amphiuma belongs to the Order Urodela, the salamanders. It is included in the Amphiumidae Family, which includes only three amphibian species all found in the Southeast.
Not much is known about this species because it is so rare. In Alabama this species is listed as being of the highest conservation concern by the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Very few have been spotted in the two counties in Alabama in which it has been observed. Because of its rarity, the state of Alabama protects this species from anyone taking, killing, or selling it for money. American herpetologist Wilfred T. Neill, research director of the Reptile Institute in Silver Springs, Florida, was the first to discover this species in 1950 while collecting aquatic salamanders for his research. He noted that two of the amphiumas looked entirely different from the rest he had collected and gave the animals a new species name.
The one-toed amphiuma typically grows between 8.6 to 13 inches (~22 and 33 centimeters) long, with its tail making up one-fourth of its length. It is the smallest of the three species. Adults have no external gills or eyelids, but larvae have feathery external gills. Adults must surface to breathe. Both males and females are a generally uniform grayish-brown color. Like other species of amphiuma, the one-toed amphiuma has a strong and sharp bite.
Amphiumas live in muddy banks of organic muck along streams and seepages just inland from the coast. In Alabama, populations can be found in muddy banks of ponds, streams, and creeks within the floodplains of Mobile and Baldwin Counties. Their habitats experience both dry and wet periods, and during wet seasons, these salamanders must come to the surface to breathe. When it is dry, they tend to burrow underground at least a foot so that their skin stays moist. The amphiuma also secretes a numbing slime through its skin when it feels threatened. Like other amphibians, the one-toed amphiuma lays eggs. Little else is known about its mating and breeding characteristics, but scientists assume that they are similar to those of other species. The courtship ritual likely takes place in water and fertilization occurs there, as well. Eggs are fertilized by the male inside the female. In other species of amphiuma, the female protects her egg mass by coiling around them and will charge approaching predators, and this is likely true for this species as well.
This salamander is active at night and a nocturnal feeder and will lie in wait for its prey in the muck. This mud dwelling carnivore’s diet consists of invertebrates including earthworms, small clams, arthropod larvae, and some beetles. Other common prey includes crawfish and insects such as mosquitos, midges, and mayflies. Predators include raccoons and some species of snakes and turtles.
Amphiumas face a number of environmental threats, with the greatest being habitat loss and degredation and pollution. Their delicate skin makes them susceptible to changes in the environment, including changes in the acidity, temperature, and overall chemical balance of the water in their habitat, all of which are affected by climate change. Agriculture runoff in Alabama from herbicide and pesticides constitute the majority of the pollutants in the amphiuma’s wetland environment. Because of their susceptibility to environmental change, these animals are important as monitors of habitat health. Scientists can use these species to indicate potential changes in the ecosystem to help prevent further degradation and suggest guidelines for restoration efforts.