another mudpuppy night at oxford mills

Back in March 2006, I wrote about an outing to Mudpuppy Night, which takes place at the Oxford Mills dam just about every Friday night throughout the winter season. Last night, we packed up my camera gear and an aquarium, and headed off into the frigid night to meet up with Dr. Fred Schueler and Aleta Karstad, of the Bishops Mills Natural History Centre, along with several other interested naturalists from the area. Fred, Aleta and daughter, Jennifer, have now studied this population of aquatic Mudpuppy Salamander (Necturus maculosus) through eight winter seasons.

So, what do these Mudpuppies do? As I wrote back in March:

In winter, Mudpuppy salamanders are found just below the Oxford Mills dam in an area where the cold, clear water of Kemptville Creek flows between the flat stone of the riverbed and sheets of ice several centimeters above. The following rather dark photos gives some idea of the location — a stone dam with heavy ice formations in the gates, and water gushing through to flow through the area where Mudpuppies wander after dark as they search for food (frogs, tadpoles, small fish, crayfish) around the rock ledges beneath the sheets of ice. They are capable of walking in a fairly strong current, and at times, they switch from walking to swimming by holding their legs against their bodies as they propel themselves forward with fish-like movements of body and tail.

Last night, I made a couple of little movie clips. This is an .mp4 version of a Mudpuppy on the move. I’ve also made a QuickTime version in case it works better for some of you. I’ve pieced together 3 very brief clips of a Mudpuppy moving about inside the aquarium that Don lugged down to the water’s edge last night. I should probably mention that the red feathery looking appendages around the Mudpuppy’s neck are its gills — this species of salamander is entirely aquatic, so requires them to breathe.

Above is a photo of the dam as it appeared last night (click on image for larger view). As you can see, there’s some snow on the ground, and ice is now rapidly building up in the gates where water gushes through. When you view the video clips, you’ll probably notice the sound of rushing water. If the cold weather continues, the open water below the dam will begin freezing over. The water level usually drops as well. This year has been very odd though. Until recently, the temperature has been unseasonably mild and we’ve had a lot of rain, so the level of Kemptville Creek has been quite high and there has been no ice formation to speak of until the past couple of weeks.

I thought you might like to get more of a feel for what it’s like to be out on Mudpuppy Night, so I made another short .mp4 clip of several people wading about in the cold, rushing water, scanning the flat limestone creek bed as they search for Mudpuppies. Each week, Fred and any willing volunteers, check out the creek bed, the stone ledges along the shorelines, and around the dam, to find and count, and occasionally measure and photograph, the Mudpuppies that have collected in the area to feed. Searchers wear tall rubber boots or hip waders, and carry bright flashlights. You have to be dressed warmly while down by or in the creek as it’s usually frigid between the dam and the bridge located just a stone’s throw downstream. The air is filled with great clouds of bone-chilling mist rising off the torrent blasting through the dam gates. As you might expect, it’s dark and cold and often quite easy to slip and fall. On my first trip to Mudpuppy Night on Dec. 28, 2000, while wading around shooting video footage, the current over-flowed my rubber boots and filled them to the top on a night when the temperature was well below -20 C (0 F). I got quite chilled by the end of a half-hour of sloshing along following Mudpuppies with my camcorder (you can find one of the video clips in the post from March 2006).

Edit: Since posting this piece, Fred Schueler has added his field notes for this Mudpuppy Night. You can see them here in the comments below.

If you’d like to see more photos of Mudpuppies, you could check out my online gallery.

If you’d like to know more about Mudpuppy salamanders, here are a few places to visit on the web:

  • Bishops Mills Natural History Centre has several pages on Mudpuppy salamanders. This is a good summary of info. Here is the history and purpose of Mudpuppy Night in verse and prose, by Fred Schueler. This is what you will need to know if you want to come out for Mudpuppy Night at Oxford Mills. The following pages include photos and accounts of past outings. You can visit them here, and here, and here.
  • CARCNET’s (Canadian Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Network) page.
  • Animal Diversity Web’s page.

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14 Responses to “another mudpuppy night at oxford mills”

  1. Peter Says:

    The gills are something else, such an interesting way to evolve. I see what looks like frost on the back of the aquarium in the video too, must have been a cold night to be hanging around the water, requires alot of dedication to do that.

  2. burning silo Says:

    Peter – Yes, the air temperature is so cold, and the water so close to the verge of freezing, that the aquarium ices up rapidly. In fact, we added a bit of warm water brought from home this time as the previous time (March 2006), the water was so cold that it has a strange consistency – like jellied ice and long thin ice crystals – forming in it. They obscured the Mudpuppies and also coated the aquarium. Adding a bit of warm water seemed to do the trick and didn’t appear to bother the salamander too much. They’re quite large and very active, btw. And those gills are quite something to see! And yes, it does require a lot of dedication to go out to that spot, especially once ice starts to form on the water as it has to be chopped away in order to do the weekly survey. Fred, Aleta, Jennifer and friends have really gone the extra mile to study this population of salamanders.

  3. Peter Says:

    Don’t forget yourself and Don when crediting that dedication. It is wonderful to see part of an active population working under the ice. I often think of the SE lakes halting for the winter, but that is not the case. Good bit of learning for me, props to all of you.

  4. burning silo Says:

    Peter – It’s quite surprising how many creatures are active under the ice in winter. We sometimes stand looking through clear ice near beaver dams and see a lot of aquatic insect activity. About 3 or 4 years ago, we saw a pair of large Diving Beetles mating under about an inch of clear ice — I think that was in mid-March. Plenty going on but we just can’t see it!

  5. Vasha Says:

    I have nothing substantive to say — just, very nice footage! Up Lissamphibia!

  6. John Says:

    Bev, the Muddpuppy on the Move footage was really interesting. I echo Peter’s comments about how interesting the gills are. I have always assumed (not sure why) that amphibians were essentially dormant in cold weather…an indication of how very much I do not know! I learn so much with every visit here. Thank you.

  7. burning silo Says:

    Vasha – Thanks!

    John – Thanks. The gills are really quite beautiful. I think the little movie clips help to show how brilliant and also animated they are. Very neat. And yes, I think we tend to think that many creatures (amphibians and others) shut down in cold weather, but that’s not entirely true – the Mudpuppy being one very good example.

  8. robin andrea Says:

    Quite an interesting journey, bev. Those Mudpuppies are so cool looking. Yes, those gills are beautiful. They look like they’re wearing red feather boas. What an amazing dedicated crew to get out there on such a cold night. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t venture out into those frigid waters, in the dark, no matter how well-prepared I could be. Glad there are braver folks than I.

  9. Cathy Says:

    A strong ‘second’ to everyone above. The clip was wonderful. Thanks for introducing me to a creature I’m sure I will never encounter personally. I can’t imagine something looking as vulnerable as this animal – existing and thriving in frigid water. Just incredible.

  10. burning silo Says:

    robin – It’s always an event to go out to Mudpuppy Night. It usually tests my cold endurance, especially when I have my gloves off to shoot photos for 15 or 20 minutes! You’re right… the gills do look like feather boas. The other thing they remind me of is those bright red cock’s comb celosia flowers.

    Cathy – Glad that the clip worked for you. I don’t think most people have seen mudpuppies as they are nocturnal, and unless you’re looking for them, you’d probably never come across one. I saw them a couple of times when I was a kid, but never saw them again until I went to Mudpuppy Night in 2000.

  11. Frederick W. Schueler Says:

    Field notes of Frederick W. Schueler

    Necturus maculosus (Mudpuppy). circa 38 adults, seen, dipnetted, photo. 2007/009/a

    Canada: Ontario: Grenville County: Oxford-on-Rideau: Oxford Mills Dam, Kemptville Creek. MAP:31B/13, UTM 18TVE 464.5 790.5. 44.96486N 75.67863W

    26 January 2007 TIME: 2010-2045. AIR TEMP: -24.5C, clear, calm

    COLLECTED BY: Frederick W. Schueler, Aleta Karstad Schueler, Matt G. Keevil, Joe Sparling & Jalen, Paul Goulet, Bev & Don Wigney, ++ Field#: 2007/009/a

    HABITAT: freezing high brown-water creek at limestone flats below old milldam; seen in Mudpuppy Night outing with lights, wading, & photography. One was seen from the bridge before I arrived; 7, mostly small on the W side flats (none seen from Vantage Point) mostly along shore in floating beds of ice crystals and little pans; about 25, both large and small, on the east side flats; 2 up near the spillway; and 3 exposed when a 2x8m floating slab of grey-slushy ice was pushed out of the east side calm spot, under the trees, and out into the current.

    The water was steaming, since it was so cold and there was no overall ice cover, just ledges of ice 2-3 m out from the banks. The water was very clear, though fog often obscured the view of the Mudpuppies. The shore end of the Vantage Point ledge is now thickly shouldered with ice, and the exposed rock is under about 5 cm of water pouring over it, with the rock about 5cm above the level of the water below it. The current from the spillways is slanted over towards the west side, so there’s no calm central eddy on the west side, but big areas of moderate current on the east side, where the Mudpuppies were lined up on the bottom as if it finally really was January: the air temperature is 29C colder than it was 2 weeks ago!

    Bev & Don Wigney brought aquaria and cameras, to take pictures, which Bev has posted as this blog entry.

    The pond above the dam is solidly frozen over, and there’s substantial ice on the spillways, though we didn’t take proper notes on the spillways.
    Determined by: F.W.Schueler; Site accuracy: 100m blw dam; Coordinates from: map reference location, datum UTM NAD 27 Canada & Lat-long WGS 84; EOBase entry: FWSOBS FWS/2007Jan29/2310:24; source: FWS/biography/as entered/EOBase; record last modified: FWS/2007Jan29/2343:23.
    Bishops Mills Natural History Centre

  12. burning silo Says:

    Fred – Thanks for posting your field notes for last Friday. It’s nice to have them here with the post. I’ve edited a link to the notes into the main post.

  13. Clare Says:

    Pretty darn cool post Bev (pun sort of intended). I’ve never seen a mudpuppy in person, they just haven’t lived where I have. Although there was one caught by an icefisher a few years back in Roblin MB my home town, well out if it’s known Manitoba distribution.

  14. burning silo Says:

    Clare – Yes, pretty darn cool indeed! I froze my hand up a bit to get those photos and the little movie clips! I had to scoop some debris off the top of the water and that was it — from then on, my fingers were freezing. Next time, I’ll bring a soup ladle along to clean up the water surface before I start shooting!
    Interesting about the mudpuppy up at Roblin, MB. I checked the range map on the NatureServe website, and you’re quite right – it looks as though the known range doesn’t extend that far north. (*** Edit to this post: I just received this note from Fred Schueler regarding known range of mudpuppies: that map’s out of date — the known range (in Andrée Gendron’s draft COSEWIC report, at least) extends to the Shellmouth dam and Lake of the Prairies, west of Roblin).
    For anyone interested in checking the range – well, the range *before* the revision mentioned in my edit), go to this link and click on “expand” in the bar marked “Distribution”. The range map is the second map down (the one marked in purple).