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Mudpuppies around Chicago: Mechanics of study

By Dale Bowman

My Sunday column for the Sun-Times was on Alicia Beattie and her study of mudpuppies around Chicago.


For Stray Casts, I would like to look at how she did it. There is so little known or studied on mudpuppies in our area that Beattie, a graduate student at Southern Illinois, is really establishing the baseline for future studies, including how, where and with what to study them. Philip Willink, the Shedd Aquarium's senior research biologist, is assisting her.

How she is capturing her mudpuppies I thought people might find interesting. (ADD, she wanted me make sure everyone knew permits are needed to do this research.)

I checked in with Beattie again on Wednesday at William W. Powers State Recreation Area on Chicago's Southeast Side, specially around the flagpole area on Wolf Lake.

``Pretty exciting to be finding them here, right next to the road,'' Beattie said. ``Wolf Lake is a cool place. People are driving by at 70 mph [on I-90 to the east].


Mudpuppies are giant, fully aquatic salamanders, notable for having four toes on all four feet. But they are also notable for their general look and color, which can vary from melanistic to a faint gray. Their gills are distinctive, too, being red and external.

Beattie noted that in {CHANGED] ``water with better oxygen,'' the gills are less noticable. That is one of the values of mudpuppies, the way they are sensitive to pollution. Their skin is also sensitive, so Beattie noted that they are in Wolf Lake is a good sign for the lake. A lake I would describe as post-industrial.

Beattie had 25 traps out, much like ice fishermen, down to having markers and foam lids to keep ice from forming over the holes.


I just loved that used a monster 10-inch power auger to drill her holes. That was not accidental, but so she could fit the minnow traps through the hole. The traps are weighted to keep them on the bottom. For that, Beattie went as inventive as I have seen some fishermen: she puts cement in a Solo cup and embeds an I-bolt.

On Wednesday, the ice was 27 cm, which translates to about 10 1/2 inches.

The minnow traps work the same for mudpuppies as they do for minnows. The mudpuppy swims in through the small hole and can't figure out how to get out. For bait, she uses minnows that she buys at Henry's Sports and Bait, that quintessential urban bait shop. She uses both live minnows and parts of minnows (for the scent) inside of mesh bags.


The mesh bags are so the mudpuppies do not eat them, because she is doing a study of the stomach contents. She ``burps'' the mudpuppies to have them regurgitate their stomach contents. Of the 29 mudpuppies she has studied so far, she found that they eat invasive round gobies, other fish, crayfish claws and small aquatic insects.

She implants a PIT tag in the tail of each mudpuppy before releasing them. She has had two recaptures so far.

The only mudpuppy she found on Wednesday--``It is like fishing, hit and miss. We caught seven on Tuesday.--was found in a sandy bottom area in about 1.9 meters (about 6 feet) of water, 22.5 meters (74 feet) off shore just south of the flagpole.

I know fishermen used to use mudpuppies as bait. That no longer happens as they are threatened in Illinois. Many decades ago, high school and college students would use them to dissect.

And I know that some of the public and even fishermen feel afraid of the odd-looking mudpuppies, even to the point of thinking they are poisonous.

The are not, or as Beattie noted, ``They are really harmless.''

As we checked the traps and I listned to Beattie--she loves her work--talk, Willink spotted first one then two coyotes come out on the ice.

Wolf Lake has become an essential urban wild spot. And mudpuppies are another piece to it.

As Beattie noted, ``It is really cool to have them right here in Chicagoland.’’

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