Shedd Researchers Publish Study on Little-Known Great Lakes Amphibian

Multi-year Research Project Findings Contribute to Knowledge on Local Ecosystems

CHICAGO – Two Shedd Aquarium researchers published a study in the Journal of Great Lakes Research last weekend on a little-known amphibian that resides in the Great Lakes region, the mudpuppy (Necturus maculosus), as part of a multi-year research project in partnership with Southern Illinois University’s Department of Zoology, Center for Ecology, and Cooperative Wildlife Research Laboratory. The research study’s results provide a foundation for additional research that can aid in understanding, managing and protecting aquatic life that resides in Great Lakes ecosystems.

Mudpuppies have the largest distribution of any fully aquatic salamander, but their populations in the Great Lakes region have declined. Though their populations are at risk, there is minimal published literature on the species. Led by Alicia Beattie, research associate at Shedd Aquarium and master’s degree student in the Department of Zoology at Southern Illinois University, this research aims to fill some of those knowledge gaps. Providing expert consult on the project was Shedd Aquarium Senior Research Biologist Dr. Philip Willink and Southern Illinois University Professor Dr. Matt Whiles.

“Our research focused on a local population of mudpuppies in Wolf Lake to gain baseline information about their biology and ecology,” said Beattie. “With this information, we better understand how this species fits in the ecosystem, and what management strategies might be useful for their conservation.”

The study examined the seasonality, efficacy and biases associated with collection techniques, and feeding ecology of mudpuppies in a heavily modified lake habitat. Beattie et al. asked three primary questions: (1) how does the successful collection of mudpuppies vary by the trapping period and water temperature in a lake habitat, (2) what biases exist in collection methods that could affect demographic studies, and (3) what are mudpuppies eating in a heavily perturbed system impacted by invasive species, and do diets change as they grow?

The study found that there is a fairly large window in which mudpuppies may be successfully collected in near-shore habitats, with the most likely period being between late fall through early spring. In assessing collection techniques, Beattie et al. determined that multiple collection methods are needed to accurately assess demographics. For example, larger sexually-mature adults were most effectively obtained in traps, whereas smaller juveniles were most effectively obtained in hand nets. And, in looking at their diets, results showed that mudpuppies are generalist and opportunistic predators, but their diets do change as they grow in size.

“One of the most important parts of understanding the health of our ecosystems is understanding the species that depend on them and how they play a role in the aquatic food chain,” said Willink. “Though we are just beginning to build a knowledge base on this population, this study opens doors for future research that will help us understand local environments as a whole.”

These data gathered can provide a magnifying glass into Great Lakes ecosystems in general. Mudpuppies have been proposed as effective bioindicators because of their wide distribution, sedentary nature, long life span and ability to accumulate toxins. But, the lack of effective monitoring techniques to-date and limited understanding of their ecology limits their utility as a true bioindicator. This research can help fix that.

“Freshwater species are facing unparalleled rates of extinction, with key threats including water pollution, habitat destruction or degradation, and invasion by exotic species,” said Beattie. “I hope this research can help contribute to the conservation of amphibians and the preservation of Great Lakes environments.”

Amphibians in the Great Lakes region may be part of a larger worldwide amphibian population decline and overall reduction in freshwater biodiversity caused by the combined and interacting human influences on freshwater systems. In fact, two thirds of the amphibians in the Great Lakes region are listed with conservation concerns. Additional research can elucidate the degree that mudpuppy populations are declining. 

Shedd Aquarium will continue its partnership with Southern Illinois University by beginning a new multi-year research project focused on mudpuppies with a Ph.D. student. With aid from Willink, the student will build on the knowledge Beattie provided.

For more information about Shedd Aquarium’s research on local mudpuppy populations, visit Shedd Aquarium’s website. You can also visit Shedd Aquarium’s special exhibit Amphibians to see and learn more about mudpuppies.

VISUALS: High resolution photos can be downloaded here:

Photo credit: ©Shedd Aquarium

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