Mudpuppy Research

Despite their diminutive name, our native mudpuppies are among the largest amphibians in the Great Lakes region—and some of the least known. That doesn’t bode well for the stocky 11-inch salamanders, which have declined so much throughout their range that they are listed as threatened on the Illinois endangered species list.

Alicia Beattie, a Shedd research associate and master’s degree student in the Department of Zoology at Southern Illinois University, along with Shedd’s research biologist Dr. Philip Willink, launched a multiyear field research project to study the biology and ecology of the mudpuppy population along Chicago’s Lake Michigan shoreline.

Learn more about Alicia's research with our blog: Breathing Life into the Great Lakes: Understanding and Conserving Our Own Backyard

Alicia is gathering baseline natural history information: the amphibians’ population dynamics, feeding habits and contributions to ecosystem functions in the decidedly urban environment of our harbors and working waterways.

Once abundant throughout the Mississippi drainage, which includes the Chicago area, mudpuppy populations have declined or disappeared due to water pollution, sedimentation, collection for the biological supply trade and a tendency of fishermen to kill them because of misbeliefs that they are detrimental to sportfishing or are poisonous.

In Shedd’s backyard   

One of Alicia’s research sites is within sight of Shedd, along the Monroe Harbor breakwater. She and her team began work in spring of 2014, while lake temperatures were still cool and the mudpuppies were active. To collect the secretive amphibians, they tether funnel-shaped minnow traps to roots, riprap and other cover along the break wall. In the beginning, they experimented with several enticements, including canned cat food, earthworms and shrimp to attract their nocturnal study subjects. Night crawlers did the trick.

Retrieving the traps, the researchers measure and weigh each animal and determine its gender. Then each mudpuppy is implanted with a passive integrated transponder, or PIT, tag, like those used for dogs and cats but much, much smaller. On future encounters with an individual, Alicia can use a scanner to read the mudpuppy’s identification number. By tagging the animals, Alicia can assess the population size and understand movement patterns of individual animals.

Before releasing a mudpuppy back into the lake, Alicia uses a syringe to gently flush stomach contents to discover what it eats. Prey identified in Monroe Harbor (Lake Michigan) mudpuppies included shrimplike mysids as well as an isopod and round gobies (an invasive fish).  

Dogged research through winter

The amphibians’ fall breeding season offers Alicia more opportunities to sample areas along the lakefront. And “mudpuppying” in winter is especially productive.

Unlike other amphibians, mudpuppies are active during the coldest months of the year. Acting on reports from anglers of “fish with legs,” Alicia and her intrepid team trekked to a small lake on the Illinois/Indiana border, where they are working through the winter and into early spring.

Other than having to drill holes in the thick ice to sink their traps, their methods are the same as they collect data on these hardy amphibians.

The mudpuppy project is another facet of Shedd’s dedication to protecting the native wildlife that inhabit our lakes. The results of Alicia’s research will inform conservation and management strategies to protect this gentle, reclusive member of our local ecosystem.  

Location

The Great Lakes

About the Team

Learn more about Shedd's conservation research team!

Blog

Read more about Shedd's work with mudpuppies, straight from researcher Alicia Beattie! 

You can help!

Pitch in to help our native wildlife by taking part in a Great Lakes Action Day. During one of these all-day outdoor excursions, you’ll help restore Illinois lakeshore habitats by cleaning a beach, removing invasive plants, or planting native grasses and wildflowers. You’ll also meet some of your neighbors—fishes and other aquatic animals that call the Great Lakes basin home.

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