Illinois Researchers Tracking Threatened ‘Mudpuppies’ in Lakes

Alicia Beattie, a graduate student zoology at Southern
Illinois University Carbondale, holds a mudpuppy
caught in a frozen lake in northern Illinois recently.

“Mudpuppies” — large, fully water-dwelling salamanders — are found in streams and lakes throughout the eastern half the country. They were once common, but now a 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.”

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.
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.
Read the complete article in SIU News

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