What’s Barking Under the Ice?

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Going out on a cold January night to stand in the middle of an icy stream looking for salamanders may not be everyone’s idea of a fun Friday night, but for the Adopt-A-Pond team it was a truly unique winter adventure!

Dr. Fred Schueler and Aleta Karstad have been running an annual Mudpuppy count every Friday through the winter months since 1998. Mudpuppy Night in Oxford Mills runs from the first Friday after Thanksgiving until spring high water, and is one of best places in Ontario to see Mudpuppies in large numbers throughout the winter.

But what exactly is a Mudpuppy? and why are winter sightings so cool (pun intended!)?

The Mudpuppy (Necturus maculosus) is Canada’s largest salamander species, averaging about 11 inches in length, with some reaching over 16 inches! Its playful name comes from its squeaky vocalizations that are said to sound like a small barking dog. Unlike the appearance of terrestrial salamanders we are most familiar with, Mudpuppies never look like they grow up, forever stuck in their aquatic larval form. Peter Pan might have had the right idea, but in reality, Mudpuppies do grow into adults, but strangely keep their youthful appearance. This type of growth is called paedomorphosim, which means as the organism grows it retains traits commonly associated with the appearance of the young, and in Mudpuppies this is seen with the presence of their external gills and large fin like tail.

Mudpuppies are ectothermic (coldblooded) amphibians meaning they greatly rely on external heat sources to metabolize their food into energy.  Mudpuppies are built for the cold! They are extremely cold-hardy animals who don’t hibernate in the winter, but instead continue to eat and grow under the ice.

The ability to be an amphibian that is active in cold temperatures is amazing! And it’s all helped by the Mudpuppy’s DNA. Mudpuppies are noted for possessing more DNA in each of their cells than any other organism on earth. This rich amount of DNA equips the Mudpuppies with a myriad of temperature-adjusted enzymes that keeps their body active in the frigid, icy waters.

Mudpuppies are primarily nocturnal (most active at night) and carnivorous. They forage year-round for worms, fish eggs, aquatic insects, and small fish, and have been found to be more active foragers in the winter than in the summer. This winter favouritism may have evolved as a way to limit their predation from larger animals when they are feeding in the shallows. Individuals that survive to adulthood are known to have few natural enemies. Some have been recorded to live over 30 years, but their lifespan averages at 11 years in the wild.

When Adopt-A-Pond staff Crystal and Shannon joined Dr. Scheuler at Oxford Mills in January. They were given an opportunity to see about 15 of these salamanders making their way along the creek bottom in search of food. The weekly reports from Oxford Mills range from no salamanders being seen, upwards to over 100 in one night!

Matt Ellerbeck, salamander advocate & conservationist (website), had his own unique Mudpuppy experience close to home and talks a bit about their threats and conservation below (edited for length):

To see the salamanders I travelled to a creek area slightly north of my home. When I arrived I wandered around in the dark, knee deep frigid water. It was here that I would encounter several of Canada’s largest salamander species the Mudpuppy (Necturus maculosus).

As I walked through the chilly water, I peered down with the help of a flashlight. On the bottom I could see the Mudpuppies slowly patrolling the rocky bottoms of their aquatic world. Others could be seen swimming with a motion similar to that of crocodilians, propelled by their large tails. Others nuzzled themselves into cracks in the rocky bottom.

Unfortunately, Mudpuppies are often inadvertently caught by fishermen. As such, anglers are encouraged to always keep pliers on hand to help remove hooks from salamanders that are accidentally caught. Mudpuppies can be easily removed and should be safely retuned to the water. Mudpuppies are also thought to be poisonous or venomous, and believed to kill off fish populations. However this is untrue.

If you catch a Mudpuppy while fishing, try to be gentle and have clean hands or gloves. Mudpuppies have soft, easily damaged bodies, and, like other amphibians, can easily absorb chemicals that may be toxic to them, such as lotions and bug spray from your skin. Because the Mudpuppy is so active in winter, people out ice fishing are the ones who see them the most. If you catch a Mudpuppy, it’s best to remove the hook while the Mudpuppy is still in the water. Once out of the water their arms and gills can quickly freeze in the air, causing irreversible damage. Placing the mudpuppy into a bucket with some lake or stream water is good way to remove the hook and keep the little guy comfortable.

After catching a Mudpuppy don’t forget to report your sightings! Population ranges for these guys are poorly understood so the more we know about where they’re living the better!

You can report Mudypuppy sightings to the Ontario Reptile and Amphibian Atlas Program.

“For most people the idea of taking a trip to stand out in icy winter waters to watch salamanders might seem crazy! However, for me there is nothing else I’d rather be doing then spending time with these stunning creatures!” Reflects Matt.

It might not be easy for you to go out and observe Mudpuppies on your own as Matt does, but if you’re excited about spending a chilly evening observing some truly amazing animal adaptations, you can get more information on Mudpuppy Night in Oxford Mills HERE