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Mudpuppy Night

Written by Doug Hoy.

Mudpuppy? It’s a salamander in a group that includes the Mexican Axolotl, the Ozark Hellbender, and the Japanese Giant Salamander, the latter the size of a Labrador Retriever, with a nasty bite that belies its goofy appearance. Ice fishermen occasionally catch Mudpuppies, but seeing one is a rare event, let alone about 100 of them at once.

So when a chance to join herpetologist Fred Schueler for “Mudpuppy Night” came along last year, Macnamara Club naturalists took off one freezing January night south on Dwyer Hill Road. Our headlights carved a tunnel through the rural dark and the occasional brightly lit mini-mansion to Oxford Mills.

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At the village centre, where a creek rushes under a bridge, lights flickered through the mist that arose from the rapids. The lights were the centre of a party atmosphere with probing flashlight beams, shrouded figures wading in the icy rapids, and the starry winter sky overhead. On the riverbank, friends and families were scampering over the ice amid cries of, “There’s one; I see him!”

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Standing in mid-stream, Aleta Karstad, Fred’s wife and renowned Canadian painter, swept the swirling waters with a huge flashlight and scooped up something with an equally huge net. The catch was brought to shore and dumped into a white bucket. Nestled docilely in the slushy water were a half dozen stocky, tan, spotted creatures with feathery red tufts sprouting from their necks—Necturus maculosus, the mudpuppy’s scientific name. The largest was a foot long.

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A crowd surrounded the bucket, talking excitedly and snapping flash photos. Above the hubbub, Fred stood with clipboard in hand and called out, “How many?” Aleta replied, “Twenty in mid-stream, and 30 at the banks.” Then we moved across the river to find more. We imagined hundreds of unseen google-eyed amphibians crawling along the river bottom. How could they resist the current? How could they stand the cold? Why were they even there?

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Fred enlightened us. Kemptville Creek, picturesque and sparkling in the dark beside us, is a tributary of the Rideau River, and eventually to larger bodies of water – even the ocean. Mudpuppies migrate upstream in winter, but the small dam at Oxford Mills creates a salamander traffic jam. Why they make their journey under the ice is anyone’s guess. When Fred first discovered the site, he notified herpetologists far and wide to look for similar concentrations of Mudpuppies at similar locations. When none were reported, he realized that the Oxford Dam might be a unique spot, and he’s studied the population ever since, returning to the site every Friday night to count torpid fish and frogs, and the Mudpuppies that prey on them.

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For the naturalist, these outlandish, ugly creatures evoke the dragons and dinosaurs of our youth, and finding such a living relic makes millions of years of evolution unfold before us. In our mind’s eye we see untold generations of creatures marching up the winter streams. Briefly interrupted by the Ice Age, they continue into our times, as we witness on this night.

It’s getting late; human toes are cold. So with salamanders counted and goodbyes said, we pile into cars, back to the points of the compass from whence we came. Like the Mudpuppies, we’ll be back.

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If you feel you don’t have enough winter amphibians in your life, don’t miss the upcoming trip Jan. 21, 2011.