Aquatic salamanders

Researching aquatic salamanders -- Alicia Beattie, a graduate student zoology at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, holds a mudpuppy caught in a frozen lake in northern Illinois recently. The full aquatic salamanders are the subject of an ongoing research project funded the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago to learn more about the threatened species, which lives in freshwater lakes and streams throughout the eastern half the country. (Photo provided)

March 17, 2015

Researchers tracking threatened ‘mudpuppies’

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- These puppies won’t come when they’re called, so researchers at Southern Illinois University Carbondale catch them instead. 

Right now, they’re catching them under the ice on a lake in northern Illinois, but “mudpuppies” -- large, fully water-dwelling salamanders -- are found in streams and lakes throughout the eastern half the country. They are at once a common, but now threatened species in Illinois, which is a major reason why the state’s premier public aquarium, the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, reached out to SIU. Researchers are finding out how Necturus maculosus lives in lakes and also what might be ailing them. 

“One of the angles of this project is to find out more about how they live in lakes,” said Matt Whiles, professor of zoology and interim director of the Cooperative Wildlife Research Laboratory, and director of the Center for Ecology at SIU. “There’s been a fair amount of research on populations that live in streams and rivers. We’re looking at populations that live in lakes in the Great Lakes area. Much less is known about those. The species does appear to be declining, but at one time it was fairly abundant throughout their range. Nobody really knows why.” 

Whiles, along with Robin Warne, assistant professor of zoology, is supervising the work of SIU zoology graduate student Alicia Beattie, who is spending many hours drilling holes on frozen Wolf Lake in northern Illinois and trapping, studying and releasing the foot-long “fish with legs.” Beattie, the daughter of Jean and Joe Beattie of Hastings, Minn., said her favorite aspect of the research so far has been meeting and working with people from different walks of life and organizations. She also has enjoyed the many and varied challenges associated with trapping and studying mudpuppies. 

“The biggest challenge is staying strong and focused while trying to figure out how, where and when to find mudpuppies,” Beattie said. “Unlike other species that are well-studied such as deer, the methods for studying mudpuppies are not well established, and I had been told that I would probably only catch a few, if any, specimens.” 

As of the second week of March, Beattie had trapped nearly 70 specimens using funnel traps baited with fish. But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. She said she trapped her first mudpuppy on June 2 of last year, but did not catch a second one until months later on Oct. 25. 

“It was pretty discouraging at first. I had several trips in the beginning where I obtained zero mudpuppies,” Beattie said. “I just kept telling myself that failing a little bit was part of doing science and that I had to keep trying.” 

Beattie began by trapping last spring at Monroe Harbor in Lake Michigan, near Shedd Aquarium itself. By mid-November, however, the approaching winter prompted officials to close the harbor. Beattie then moved operations to Wolf Lake, where she’s been ever since. 

Mudpuppies are amphibians and therefore, cold-blooded creatures whose body temperatures are heavily influenced by the temperature of their environment. But the coldest months, perhaps counterintuitively, are the most active for mudpuppies and have led to the most captures. 

Once ice formed on Wolf Lake, Beattie used a gas-powered ice auger to drill holes and set traps, covering the holes with insulation and then checking them for occupancy each morning. Running some 50 traps each day, Beattie performs a series of measurements and data collection when she hauls in her quarry. 

“If I caught a mudpuppy, I took data on the mudpuppy and its habitat, including the substrata there and the GPS location,” she said. “Before releasing it back through the ice, I use a non-harmful stomach flushing technique to collect their stomach contents, which I bring back to my lab for identification.” 

Beattie also records each specimen’s sex, length, mass, and any deformities. She then tags them with a Passive Integrated Transponder inserted into their tail, each of which has a unique number that researchers can read with a scanner. 

“I can quickly scan them to see if they are a recapture,” said Beattie, who has so far recaptured 13 mudpuppies. “PIT tags allow for reassessment data, including growth rates and survival, and mark-recapture data needed for population estimates.” 

Beattie said her research efforts have drawn attention in the area and she is enjoying doing science in the midst of a public setting. When people approach her about her research she hands out a fact sheet about mudpuppy ecology. Many anglers think mudpuppies are really beautiful creatures, or at least an interesting member of the aquatic community, she said, though there are those who think they are poisonous and find their appearance unnerving. Beattie explains to them that mudpuppies are totally harmless and a threatened species. 

Philip Willink, senior research biologist at Shedd Aquarium, said mudpuppies are next-door neighbors to the facility, which sits on Lake Michigan’s shore. 

“But we knew almost nothing about their status, population trends, ecology, seasonality and such,” Willink said. “Basically they are something that people would come across by accident. They are a charismatic species that are often incorporated into habitat restoration projects. But we were surprisingly lacking in scientific information. This is a problem that needed to be rectified. So there was always a desire to study mudpuppies, but we were lacking the suitable opportunity.” 

After partnering with SIU on the project, the Shedd Aquarium will use the results of the ongoing study in a new, temporary exhibit devoted to amphibians later this year, Willink said. 

The two-year, $50,000 study is funded by the Daniel P. Haerther Center for Conservation and Research at Shedd Aquarium. The Illinois Natural History Survey and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also are collaborating on the project. 

Whiles said he was encouraged by the number of specimens Beattie has been able to capture at Wolf Lake, which is heavily impacted by human activity. Mudpuppies are a well-known species among anglers, but are unusual in that they are “fully aquatic,” having never emerged from water to live on land. Their gills look like colorful little flowers tucked behind their ears and they can be found in any fresh water setting in their range. 

“Calling them mudpuppies may be a bit of a misnomer,” Whiles aid. “You can find them in muddy water, sure, but you can also them in crystal clear water with rock bottoms. I don’t think they have a particular affinity for mud, but this may have to do more with where people have found them. 

“They’re also called water dogs, so that dog and puppy theme is strong,” Whiles mused. “I guess their head looks a little bit like a dog.” 

Whiles said Beattie’s presence on the project is a direct result of the SIU Center for Ecology Research Experience for Undergraduates program, a National Science Foundation program that helps the university offer an array of research opportunities while providing a nurturing environment in which students learn basic research tools and improve oral and written communication skills. 

Beattie came to SIU the summer after earning her undergraduate degrees in environmental studies and political science at the University of Minnesota, Morris. She joined the REU program at SIU in 2013, working on the Whiles’ Cache River research project. Faculty selected her to present her research at the National REU Conference in Washington that October and Whiles soon asked her to join the lab as a master’s student in January 2014 to study mudpuppies. 

Beattie said SIU is helping her meet her career goals by giving her the opportunity to conduct high-profile research with many collaborating partners. 

“I have had an incredible experience so far learning how to effectively carry out a fairly high-profile project for an understudied and imperiled species,” she said. “It has heightened my interests in freshwater ecology and conservation more generally and solidified my interest in using scientific information to inform decision-making and ultimately protect biodiversity and associated ecosystem services. I’ve also benefited from a very encouraging adviser who has allowed me to really take the reins on the project.”