Creature Feature: The Peculiar Mudpuppy
When you hear the word “mudpuppy” what do you picture?
It’s not a dirty dog, but rather a large, gray-brown, four-toed salamander with fluffy red gills. They get their unusual name not from their appearance, but from a sound the mudpuppy makes which can resemble a dog’s barking! This fascinating amphibian is tough to spot in its freshwater habitat, but shouldn’t go unnoticed for its important role in freshwater ecosystems.
All About Mudpuppies
Mudpuppies (Necturus maculosus) are a species of salamander found primarily in eastern Canada and the United States. In the past, they could be found across the state of Illinois, but in recent years their populations have dwindled to be found mainly in Lake Michigan and some clear streams and rivers. They can live to be about 11 years old and can grow up to about a foot long.
Unlike most other amphibians that live both in water and on land, mudpuppies live fulltime in their aquatic environments. They eat a variety of small aquatic animals from insect larvae to crayfish. Notably, mudpuppies help bolster native fish populations when they prey on invasive gobies, allowing native fishes to thrive on more abundant resources.
Like axolotls, a related species of salamander that have become popular through their portrayal in video games and social media, the mudpuppy’s most iconic visual feature are their fluffy red gills.
Mudpuppies are considered an indicator species, which means they can help gauge the health of their respective ecosystems due to their sensitivity to pollutants and declining water quality. Their distinguishing gills can be an indication of water quality; the less oxygen the water contains, the bigger a mudpuppy’s gills will get.
Due to their range spanning across North America, how mudpuppies react to water quality can be used to compare river and stream health across the country. Mudpuppies are an under-researched species, so scientists are working to better understand how they interact with other animals and their environments. More broadly, Shedd Research Biologist Melissa Youngquist researches how invasive species affect terrestrial and aquatic habitats used by amphibians in the Great Lakes watershed, including mudpuppies.
What Can You Do to Help Mudpuppies?
- If you’re lucky enough to spot a mudpuppy in the wild, leave them and their home alone. Mudpuppies, like many other salamanders, tend to hide from predators under logs and rocks in riverbeds. There is a common belief that mudpuppies are poisonous, but despite their slimy appearance, their main defense against predators is to camouflage themselves in their environment. Moving these hiding places can expose them and their young to predation. If you happen to catch a mudpuppy while fishing, make sure to get them back in the water as soon as possible and untangle them from any nets or lines.
- Help keep rivers and streams clean by decreasing pesticide usage and properly disposing of waste. Pollutants in the water, like pesticides from gardens and lawns that wash down storm drains, can impact the health of mudpuppies’ eggs and young.
If you see a mudpuppy salamander in the wild, take a minute to admire the fluffy red gills, and then wave goodbye and leave them to their watery home on the Great Lakes!
- Alethea Lamb, Rose Brown and Josh Zillinger, Fall 2022 ACCA Freshwater Ecology Students