A bizarre salamander and the endangered, clam-like mussel that relies on it got good news recently from Canadian scientists.
Federal researchers found an apparently stable population of mudpuppies in Ontario’s Sydenham River. The research is published in the June issue of the Journal of Great Lakes Research.
Mudpuppies are native to the Great Lakes and have beady eyes, slimy skin and feathery gills sticking out of their necks.
“I find them very interesting animals, but I can see why the general public wouldn’t rate them up there with bluebirds,” said Jim Harding, herpetology specialist at the Michigan State University Museum.
Most of the mudpuppies found in the Sydenham were young, which suggests that the population is stable and could be growing, said study author Tana McDaniels, a researcher with Environment Canada
That’s encouraging for a species that is declining elsewhere across the Great Lakes region.
Mudpuppies have external gills and can absorb contaminants through their skin, so they’re sensitive to pollution, Harding said. They can be killed by a chemical used to control sea lamprey larvae, a parasitic fish. The chemical, called TFM, has wiped out mudpuppies in some tributaries of Lake Michigan.
And mudpuppy die-offs along Lake Huron and Lake Erie could be tied to toxins that build up from algae blooms.
“I would say certainly they’re on the decline,” Harding said. “I don’t see them in as many bodies of water as I once did and they seem to be scarcer for the most part in those bodies of water where I still find them.”
A stable population of mudpuppies in the Sydenham River is not just good news for salamanders. The river could also be home to the only Canadian population of endangered mudpuppy mussels, McDaniels said.
The larvae of most mussels attach to fish gills. The attachment provides plenty of oxygen and helps the larvae travel to places it couldn’t reach on its own. The larvae are harmless and drop off after a few weeks.
Each species of mussel generally attaches to a certain species of fish. But the mudpuppy mussel attaches to the gills of the amphibian it’s named for, and is the only mussel with an amphibian host.
The mussels, under pressure from agricultural runoff and invasive species, are listed as endangered or threatened in Canada, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Ohio.
The mudpuppy and its mussel are both sensitive to heavy sediment. The Sydenham empties into Lake St. Clair after flowing through an intensely agricultural region of Ontario, picking up soil that has eroded from farmland. All that dirt in the water can make it difficult for mudpuppies to breath and for mussels to eat.
Though the study suggests the muddy Sydenham’s mudpuppies are doing fine, McDaniels said that this one-time survey doesn’t prove that this population is stable. That could take decades of monitoring, she said.