This last month, I led a team of researchers onto Wolf Lake—a former estuary complex of Lake Michigan that’s located near the Illinois/Indiana state line—where we walked out on 9 inches of ice created by an early winter freeze. With an ice auger, a sled and long-handled chisels, our team might have blended in with the anglers, but for one thing that made us stand out: a sled piled high with dozens of modified funnel minnow traps. Our team wasn’t looking for fish; we were looking for mudpuppies. We were ready for “ice mudpuppying.”

Mudpuppies were once abundant in the Chicago area. In a 1930 account of salamanders in the Chicago area, the Field Museum wrote that a biological supply house in Chicago sold 2,000 specimens a year for use in high school and college vertebrate anatomy courses. Today, however, mudpuppies are in decline throughout the Great Lakes region. In 2012, they were listed as threatened in Illinois. By learning more about the current population and habits of mudpuppies, we hope to assist in their conservation.

At first glance, Wolf Lake doesn’t appear to be a likely habitat for a pollution-sensitive threatened salamander, considering the lake’s modification and industrial background. But occasional reports from anglers who had caught “fish with legs” had confirmed the persistence of mudpuppies there. After some success finding juvenile mudpuppies while flipping rocks during the autumn months, I tried my luck drilling holes and setting funnel traps beneath the ice. Unlike other amphibians, mudpuppies can most often be found during the coldest months of the year. After breeding in late autumn, they remain active all winter long before the females lay their eggs in the spring. 

Over a week of drilling holes and checking traps in Wolf Lake, my team and I managed to collect 11 mudpuppies. They were all released after being tagged, measured and examined. Many anglers stopped by to peer in our buckets, exclaiming that they hadn’t see a mudpuppy at Wolf Lake since they were kids. Others gaped at the mudpuppies, baffled that such a creature could be found under the ice in January.

We plan to continue the research at Wolf Lake through the winter and into early spring. Our hope is to collect data that will help make the current population status, ecosystem role and habits of mudpuppies less mysterious.

--Alicia Beattie is a master’s student at Southern Illinois University Carbondale (SIU-C). She is partnering with the Department of Conservation and Research at Shedd Aquarium.