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Meet the Mudpuppy: The curious (and controversial) dweller of our lake’s depths

– Written by Logan Parker, MLRC Community Engagement Coordinator

– Photographs courtesy of Todd Pierson

Deep in the waters of Belgrade Lakes, there lurks an exotic and unusual life form recorded only in a handful of other Maine water bodies outside the watershed. Its body is rusty brown, muscular, and elongated (reaching around 10”-12”). On either side of its relatively flat head are sets of bushy, red, external gills and within its large mouth are two rows of small, sharp teeth. At night, these creatures emerge from their dens below rocks and logs to hunt insects, crayfish, leeches, and snails (Mairs, 1992). This bizarre sounding creature is none other than the Mudpuppy (Necturus maculosus), a fully aquatic amphibian accidently introduced into the watershed in 1939, and again in 1940.

Many residents of the Belgrade Lakes watershed are already familiar with the mudpuppy. Indeed, many local anglers had their first interaction with this intriguing creature when one came up on the on the other end of their fishing line while ice fishing on one of our lakes. I had my first encounter with a (small) mudpuppy while searching for crayfish in the shallows of Mill Stream, behind the Maine Lakes Resource Center. Others have found deceased adult mudpuppies washed up along the shore after strong summer storms. These days, the occasional discovery of one of these large salamanders inspires more curiosity than it does loathing. That was not always the case.

Not so long ago, the mudpuppy was seen as more than just an aquatic oddity or nuisance to ice fisherman. In the decades following the creature’s introduction, anglers waged war on the mudpuppy by spearing as many individuals as they could find (Mairs, 1992). The hostility towards the animal was based on a fear that the mudpuppies posed a threat to local trout and salmon fisheries (Mairs, 1992). Over the years, the efforts waned and today the mudpuppy is well established. The mudpuppy has since been captured in Long Pond and “there seems no reason to believe that these salamanders would not spread below Long Pond to Messalonskee Lake” and perhaps beyond (Mairs, 1992). The impact of the introduction of the mudpuppy is largely unknown as the “species has received little scientific attention in this state” (Mairs, 1992). That, like the public opinion towards the mudpuppy, may be changing.

Necturus_maculosus_2It was a biology professor from Colby College that accidently released the first mudpuppies into Great Pond in 1939. That professor was Henry W. Aplington. Aplington had intended study the 200 young mudpuppies he had secured from Pennsylvania. Aplington arranged to store the mudpuppies in a wire mesh trap in the stream between Salmon Lake and Great Pond (Collins, 2003). That fall, Aplington and students discovered that many of the salamanders had escaped. The following year, a similar situation played out resulting in even more escaped mudpuppies (Collins, 2003). Since that time, these animals have dispersed unseen, deep below the lake’s surface.

In perhaps an appropriate twist, it is another Colby College biology professor, Dr. Cathy Bevier, who is exploring the dispersal of the introduced mudpuppies all these decades later. Partnered with Maine IFW biologist, Phillip deMaynadier, Bevier hopes to study the spread of the mudpuppy utilizing an innovative approach: Environmental DNA (eDNA). According to Bevier, “[eDNA] is a relatively recent tool that biologists can use to detect the presence of a particular species in its environment”. Rather than attempting to capture mudpuppies (a highly labor-intensive tactic), the team will take water and sediment samples and “test for the presence of the species’ DNA using molecular tools”. “This approach is based on the premise that multicellular organisms, like mudpuppies, are always sloughing off cells and leaving behind waste products, both of which contain their DNA. With eDNA, you choose one particular region of DNA (a gene sequence) that you already have in the lab, and see if your environmental sample has the same DNA.” states Bevier. According to USGS research ecologist, David Pilliod, this “rapid, cost-effective, and standardized” methodology is already being employed to monitor both rare and invasive aquatic species around the country (Pilliod, 2012).

While the spread and the impact of the mudpuppy’s introduction is still largely unknown, few would dispute that what we do know of the creature is fascinating. That these animals live so close and yet are so seldom seen only adds to the species’ intrigue. Until more research is conducted, the mudpuppy will undoubtedly remain one of the Belgrade Lakes watershed’s more mysterious lake dwellers.

Citations:

Collins, Stephen (2003) “The Great Mudpuppy Escape (sort of),” Colby Magazine; Vol. 92: Iss. 4, Article 6. http://digitalcommons.colby.edu/colbymagazine/vol92/iss4/6

Mairs, Donald (1992) “Mudpuppy” The Amphibians and Reptiles of Maine. Maine Agricultural Experiment Station. Univerity of Maine. Orono, ME.

Pilliod, D.S., Goldberg, C.S., Laramie, M.B., and Waits, L.P., 2013, Application of environmental DNA for inventory and monitoring of aquatic species: U.S. Geological Survey Fact Sheet 2012-3146, 4 p.