Amphibians under surveillance

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Kevin Hansen, left, and Jeff LeClere, right, check one of several traps they've set for mudpuppies along the shore of the Mississippi River. They'll continue to capture and study the unique amphibians throughout the winter, when mudpuppies are most active. (Press photo by Molly Moser)

By Molly Moser

The Mighty Mississippi undoubtedly holds many mysteries within her muddy waters, and one such secret is being uncovered this fall in Guttenberg. A slimy, carnivorous creature lurks beneath the surface, evading even those who know the river best. The ellusive necturus maculosus is extremely slimy, with lidless eyes and external gills. It has a head like a dragon, the body shape of a fish, and sports four stubby legs with four toes on each tiny foot. It can grow to be nearly 20 inches long and live up to 20 years. This fully aquatic amphibian is known as the common mudpuppy.

Animal survey specialist Jeff LeClere visited Guttenberg last week to begin studying mudpuppies in the area. He will return over the course of the next several months as he and DNR fisheries technician Kevin Hansen search for answers about this unique type of salamander.

Until recently, not much was known about the mudpuppy. LeClere suspects herpetologists may not have been looking for them (and probably don’t know how to begin looking), but mudpuppies have been moved to the top of the priority list in Iowa due to the lack of knowledge about this threatened species. He and Hansen are embarking on a similar mission into the unknown, hoping to trap mudpuppies in rocky areas and operating on tips from the very few local fishermen who’ve caught them accidentally in the past. 

“A lot of herpetologists are caring more about mudpuppies, and a lot of places that have them are concerned. They’re starting to track them and make sure their populations are stable,” said LeClere. 

Some scientists suspect the presence of mudpuppies may be an indicator of good water quality, as they avoid areas of high siltation. LeClere, who authored the Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles of Iowa, says some are harvested for dissection and study at the University of Wisconsin. But it’s not clear what the population of mudpuppies really is, or whether they’re actually threatened. Hansen and LeClere are among those taking proactive steps to learn more about these amphibians before it’s too late. 

One reason mudpuppies have remained in the dark is because they simply are not typical amphibians. Most amphibians overwinter to survive cold temperatures, ceasing movement, eating, and even slowing their breathing. Mudpuppies are just the opposite. “They are most active in the winter, and are mostly nocturnal,” said LeClere. “They breed midwinter, eat midwinter, and all of this is happening completely underwater. People are not seeing it.” Thus, ice fishermen are more likely to catch the cold-loving amphibians than any other fishermen.

A mudpuppy was found dead in Bluff Slough after a 2008 train derailment near Guttenberg. The DNR received mitigation funds just last year, and have dedicated most of those funds to mussel work – but some of those funds are being used for the mudpuppy project. Mudpuppies are the only host for the salamander mussel, carrying around the mussel larva in their gills for several weeks. “We could potentially lose a species of mussel if we lose mudpuppies,” explained LeClere. 

Traps are being set for mudpuppies, and boaters will notice small, cylindrical floats in the water marked IDNR – DO NOT DISTURB. Hansen and LeClere will tag each mudpuppy they’re able to trap, and will collect genetic material on the individuals for further research being done at the University of Michigan. Eventually, they would like to track the mudpuppies they catch using radio telemetry. “If anybody were to capture one and bring it to us, we’d appreciate it,” said Hansen, who suggests bringing the animals to the Guttenberg fish hatchery promptly in a bucket of river water. For more information, contact Hansen at 563-252-1156.

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