On Friday night, Seabrooke and I went to see mudpuppies! We hummed and hawed about getting together, because the weather forecast wasn’t promising. In the end, we decided to give it a shot, and we were glad we did. The bad weather held off, and it was a brisk but calm evening.
Mudpuppy Night takes place every Friday evening from Thanksgiving to March in the little hamlet of Oxford Mills, where mudpuppies gather in shallow water below the dam. They have been studied by Biologist/Artist team Fred Schueler and Aleta Karstad for many years, and the public is invited to share this rare opportunity to see usually-secretive mudpuppies up close.
When we arrived, we joined Fred and his daughter Jennifer, and fisheries biologist Naomi Langlois-Anderson and her three young children. In addition to head-lamps, Fred had a bright flashlight that helped to illuminate the searchers. We gathered at the ice-ledged creek edge while Naomi, Fred and Jennifer waded into the water. A mudpuppy was quickly caught and released in a white bucket of water. Immediately, many hands darted out, seeking a chance to hold and admire the mudpuppy.
Here’s Seabrooke, taking her turn. What a thrill, to hold one of these beautiful salamanders in your hands! The water is icy cold. It’s amazing that the mudpuppies thrive in this frigid environment. Soon, several more mudpuppies joined the first in the bucket.
Mudpuppies are large aquatic salamanders with bushy reddish gills behind their heads. The gills are larger and bushier in warm, oxygen-poor water, and smaller in cold water with a higher oxygen content. Their bodies are and olive brownish colour, with bluish black spots. They have short legs with four toes. They can swim, but are primarily bottom-walkers.
These mudpuppies may travel up Kemptville Creek from the Rideau River and are stopped in their progress by the dam at Oxford Mills. Mudpuppies often form large groups in the fall, from late September to November, when the normally solitary males join the females. After courtship, the male deposits his sperm package (spermatophore), which the female picks up with her vent. She stores the sperm in her cloaca until spring.
There are five or so species of mudpuppies in eastern North America, but only Necturus maculosus maculosus is found in the Great Lakes region. Mudpuppies live in permanent rivers, reservoirs and lakes. In clear waters, they tend to be nocturnal, hiding beneath rocks and ledges during the day. In habitats with good vegetative cover, they may be active both day and night.
Mudpuppies eat a variety of aquatic creatures including crayfish, small fish and their eggs, worms and insect larvae. They have a strong sense of smell and will also eat carrion. Enemies of mudpuppies include water snakes, fish and herons, and of course, people. They may be caught on baited hooks by ice fishermen, and it is reportedly common practice to throw mudpuppies out on the ice to die. They are very sensitive to pollution, and are also susceptible to the chemicals used in lamprey control programs.
It was an entertaining and educational outing. Thank you to Fred and Jennifer and Naomi for this wonderful opportunity to see these neat amphibians. Below, here I am, all bundled up, holding a mudpuppy under the close supervision of a junior naturalist.