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Mudpuppies reach academia: Building block in study of mudpuppies

Alicia Beattie shows one of the mudpuppies captured and studied at Wolf Lake.
Credit: Dale Bowman

Alicia Beattie found a surprise when she started studying mudpuppies around the Chicago lakefront a couple years ago.

“I was kind of shocked when things started so slow,’’ she said. “Originally, we started in harbor areas, then turned to Wolf Lake under the ice. I was able to do more work there.’’

Not only did her study of the elusive aquatic amphibian take off when Beattie shifted focus to Wolf Lake, but it set a base for ongoing research. There is a stunning lack of research on mudpuppies, those odd-looking fellows most often seen by fishermen in late fall or winter at Navy Pier and other lakefront spots.

A fisherman’s photo of a mudpuppy.
A fisherman’s photo of a mudpuppy.

Beattie’s masters work, under the tutelage of Shedd Aquarium senior research biologist Phil Willink and Southern Illinois professor Matt Whiles, was just published in the Journal of Great Lakes Research. Most importantly, her study established methods to study mudpuppies.

“If you are going to survey, there are certain things to remember, one is the time of year,’’ Beattie said. “Above 57 degrees we couldn’t catch them, either they are moving deeper or not feeding much.’’

Beattie learned that different methods of capture produce different results. She found that netting while flipping rocks near shore produced smaller, younger mudpuppies, while minnow traps in deeper areas produced mostly adults. Knowing that beforehand prevents false or skewed conclusions from being drawn in future research here and in other places. And there is much interest around the Great Lakes.

“If they are in a place, we now have a method of how to find them,’’ Willink said. “They disappear in summer, who knows where. Basically, you have to wait for the water to cool. You can go to Wolf Lake in the summer and never find them.’’

Beattie’s work also established a baseline for the study of diet, too, through work on stomach contents.

“Little guys can’t fit bigger bait, such as crayfish, in their mouths,’’ Beattie said. “They seem to shift their diet as they grow. Larger ones eating fish and crayfish; invasive species as well as native species. They don’t seem to be particularly picky eaters.’’

An interesting find in the study of stomach contents showed a larger mudpuppy was clearly a cannibal from its stomach contents.

Alicia Beattie displays mudpuppy No. 29, which was trapped Wednesday on Wolf Lake. She is studying mudpuppies in the Chicago area. | Dale Bowman/For the Sun-Times
Alicia Beattie displays mudpuppy No. 29, which was trapped Wednesday on Wolf Lake. She is studying mudpuppies in the Chicago area. | Dale Bowman/For the Sun-Times

“Beyond the actual results, this really drew attention to an amphibian most never heard of or have seen,’’ Beattie said.

That was true of groups as diverse as the old-school sportsman’s club on the south end of Wolf Lake to the group of thoroughly modern Habitat 2030 volunteers.

And amphibians, such as mudpuppies, are important also as bioindicators. Willink said they are not just found in lakes, but also in such places as the Kankakee River.

“You need rocks on the bottom, if it is covered up with silt, you lose them,’’ he said. “They also disappear from streams with pollution.’’

In other tidbits from the study, mudpuppies are hosts for the salamander mussel, the only mussel in North America that uses a non-fish host. The biggest mudpuppy Beattie studied was 38.5 centimeters (15.1 inches).

Beattie earned her Masters this summer and is working for Chagrin River Watershed Partners in Ohio. The Shedd and SIU will continue work on the mudpuppy project next with PhD student Jared Bilak, Willink said. One cool part planned is a tracking study of mudpuppies next year.

Building off Beattie’s work.

Click here for a Sun-Times column I did when Beattie was in the early stages of her work at Wolf Lake. Click here for the scholarly article.

Alicia Beattie doing field work on mudpuppies at Wolf Lake.<br>Credit: Dale Bowman
Alicia Beattie doing field work on mudpuppies at Wolf Lake.
Credit: Dale Bowman