04.21.15 Aquatic Salamander

Dr. John Pojman with his pet Chrissy, a three-toed amphiumas, on Tuesday April 2011 in the Chopin Hall.

Chemistry professor John Pojman dreamed as a young boy of one day owning a “conger eel.” Today, he not only has one named Chrissy, but he also leads the longest-running research study in the animal’s history.

Pojman has studied three-toed amphiumas for the past six years with Southeastern Louisiana University biology professor Cliff Fontenot, and they recently secured a $12,445 grant from the Coypu Foundation to continue uncovering the mysteries of this common but rarely seen amphibian.

Three-toed amphiumas belong in the aquatic salamander family. They live in water, but because they have lungs, they can survive in dry mud for months. The critters can be found in swamp areas and bodies of water along the Gulf states.

“What’s fascinating to me is that [amphiumas are] so common, yet so little is known about them,” Pojman said. “This is an animal that lives right in the city, right on campus, but almost nothing is known about their lifestyle.”

Since moving to Baton Rouge after Hurricane Katrina, Pojman set trap sites all over the city to catch amphiumas. He caught Chrissy five years ago in a ditch on Burbank Drive, and she now resides in an aquarium in his office.

Pojman’s research started when he and his son, John Jr., were hunting for frogs in a pond near his house one night, he said. He noticed a snake-like animal, picked it up and recognized it as a three-toed amphiuma.

Chrissy, along with alligator snappers and alligators, will be featured in the New Orleans-inspired episode of “Nigel Marven’s Cruise Ship Adventure,” Pojman said.

The show, set to premiere in early May in the U.K., highlights the flora and fauna of port cities across the world.

Pojman said he became interested in herpetology — the study of reptiles and amphibians — because it is research that can be done by an amateur.

“I really liked biology, but I decided I didn’t want to do it as a career,” Pojman said. “Biology is too easy, and physics is too hard, so I decided on chemistry.”

Some of the areas Pojman monitors have as many as 50 amphiumas in one place.

Pojman captures the amphiumas, measures their sizes, tags them with radio transmitters and releases them back into the wild to measure the animals’ movements.

He will use the Coypu Foundation grant to buy more traps, set up a PIT tag reader that monitors where tagged animals swim and set up underwater cameras to get footage of amphiumas in the wild.

Pojman said he hopes to have the new equipment set up within a month.

“It would be exciting to get actual footage of these animals in the wild,” Pojman said. “Almost every nature show, the scenes are staged. Now with inexpensive underwater cameras, we can do this. I’m optimistic we will be able to see the mysteries because nobody really knows the most important thing of [the amphiuma’s] life cycle, which is breeding.”

Chrissy may see new friends too, Pojman said. He also said he would use some of the grant funds to hire a student worker to keep track of traps and the tag reader and to review camera footage.

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