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Thursday, Feb. 9, 2006 05:25 am

Storm sirens over Taylorville

Area scientists ponder unique, historic storm

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Biologists say that this amphibian, the siren, was probably the creature Taylorville-area residents discovered after an 1869 storm.
PHOTO BY J.D. WILLSON. USED WITH PERMISSION.
During heavy summer storms, central Illinois has been showered, at least metaphorically, with more than its share of cats and dogs. But once, in what must have been the most unusual downpour in this region’s history, it rained so hard that it rained amphibians — and these creatures weren’t just figures of speech. The unexpected payload of heavy precipitation rained down near Taylorville during a late-night storm on June 4, 1869. Steady rains had pummeled the area for several days, and the saturated ground was spotted with puddles and pools. Residents just north of Taylorville woke Saturday morning to more than mud and standing water, though. Springfield’s Illinois State Register reported that every ditch, brook, puddle, and pool was alive with nondescript “serpents” in numbers “beyond all estimate.” “Boys and men take them from the pools in hundreds, and they are brought to town for inspection,” according to the report. “It is the universal testimony of all the people in the country that no creature anything like those was ever before seen by them.” The dark-hued creatures were depicted as 18 to 24 inches long and three-fourths of an inch to an inch in diameter. They possessed a flattened tail, no fins, an eel-like head with a suckerlike mouth, small eyes, and, most strangely, a single pair of perfectly formed appendages — similar to those of a turtle — immediately behind the head. We recently asked local biologists to help identify these creatures from these descriptions. After conferring with peers, Dave Cox, professor of biology at Lincoln Land Community College, was the first to come up with the identification that would eventually be a consensus answer for the group: an amphibian known popularly as a lesser siren. “I can see where a layperson might consider the forelimbs to be somewhat flipperlike and the mouth, located on the lower part of the jaw, to be somewhat suckerlike,” notes Mike Romano of the department of biological science at Western Illinois University. “The lesser siren is 1 to 2 feet or so [long] and does have small eyes . . . [but] there did not seem to be any mention of the external gills, which would be pretty prominent. Nevertheless, the fact that they could be transported so easily out of water makes it the most likely candidate.” Cox adds that the lesser siren is common in the southern states and that Illinois is the northernmost edge of its range. Even here it is only in the southernmost quarter of this state that the amphibian is easily found. Side lakes along the Mississippi River are their favorite habitat. “Sirens are permanently aquatic, secretive by nature, thus more common that we think,” Cox says. Even for those totally unfamiliar with this herpetological oddity, the real stumping question with regard to this event must be how these relatively large creatures ended up falling from the sky into the puddles of the prairie north of Taylorville. As it turns out, though such events are exceedingly rare, strange objects — biological and otherwise — have been falling during storms since the beginning of recorded history. “Occurrences like this have been documented all over the world,” says WICS (Channel 20) meteorologist Kevilee Douglas. “They are usually associated with tornadoes. Tornadoes and waterspouts — tornadoes over water — act like a vacuum cleaner, sucking almost anything from the surface high into the atmosphere. Strong thunderstorms that contain tornadoes have strong updrafts. These updrafts, if strong enough, can pick up debris at the surface and pull it into the upper atmosphere. Once this debris is in the higher levels of the atmosphere, it can get caught up in the jet stream. The debris will eventually fall to the earth, sometimes hundreds of miles away from where they were picked up.” Douglas’ scenario would then have these animals being picked up en masse by a tornado that most likely waterspouted over a wetland adjacent to southern Illinois’ leg of the Mississippi and then transported to Taylorville after a one- to two-hour ride on the jet stream. Again, many skeptics would question whether these animals so few Illinoisans have ever seen truly were of a sizable enough population density to enable a tornado to lift 1,000 or more of them skyward. Although their label of being rarely seen is all too accurate, that aspect of the animals’ existence is deceiving. Philip Smith wrote in his The Amphibians and Reptiles of Illinois that “if special effort is made [sirens] can be taken in numbers.” Brian Anderson, chairman of the Lincoln Land’s biological- and physical-sciences department, says that as a result of human encroachment, the species has “likely been under pressure since the 1960s. Many of its haunts [are now restricted to] state nature preserves or protected federal properties.” Population density and magnitude would have been significantly superior in the mid-19th century. “Sirens can be moderately common in the appropriate habitat, though they are quite secretive, mostly active at night, and not often seen,” says Steve Mullin, a herpetologist at Eastern Illinois University. “I have encountered healthy populations in southern Illinois and would guess that you might find densities as high as one individual per cubic meter of water.” Using Mullin’s estimate and a hypothetical tornado traveling 30 mph with a contact base 2 meters across and a 30-second touchdown, mathematics tells us that it could have vacuumed up almost 1,000 sirens. History has recorded scores of enigmatic “falls” during storms. These range from the not-so-strange red sand that fell over Chicago in early January 2006, which the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency determined to have originated in Texas or Oklahoma, to the more common “fish falls” that occur just often enough in Europe to barely merit headlines any more. But it would seem that Taylorville can claim downstate Illinois’ only mysterious “fall” in history and the world’s solitary “siren fall.”

Also from Scott Maruna

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