March 16, 2009

A mud puppy and an eastern hellbender went into a bar . . .

one big salamander
Originally uploaded by ratterrell

I went looking for a mud puppy this morning and found this photo on ratterrell's flickr site. He'd been ice fishing in Wisconsin, caught what he thought was a walleye, reached for it, and stopped when he spied the fella in the photo.

He says it kind of freaked him out,coming up from the dark water. I understand. When I was growing up, my parents owned an ice-fishing business on Lake Erie, and mudpuppies like this were sometimes on the end of our lines, too. Salamanders, they are.

Ice fishing came to mind when I opened the Spring 2009 Kentucky Afield and found "On the Prowl for Devil Dogs: the search for the disappearing eastern hellbender" by Danna Baxley. The hellbender was once prevalent in Kentucky. In an exhaustive search last year, our Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources turned up only 11.

What's causing the demise of this remarkable salamander? The usual things: "siltation, water pollution, all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) in waterways, dams, overcollecting, disease, and killing by the public" (p. 28).

If you happen upon a salamander one day and want to know if it's a mud puppy or an eastern hellbender, count the toes on its hind feet. Mudpuppies have four per foot; hellbenders have five. Also, while mudpuppies have gills, salamanders don't. Finally, take out your tape measure. The largest mudpuppies are 13" long. The hellbender can grow to 29 inches and a rollicking 5 punds.

The hellbender's other nickname -- snot otter -- offers another clue to its mystique. Pretty? Depends on your outlook. Unique? Yes. Worth preserving? Yes.


Lisa Creech Bledsoe said...

I thought mud puppies were a southern thing. How can they tolerate the cold up there? I will have to find one, count it's back toes, and ask it.

Snot otter! Snot otter snot otter snot otter. Love it.

Mary said...

Remember the time you sent me a list of bad words 'cause you were afraid I'd run out? I sent some on to a friend this week. "Poop head" is the only one I remember -- but from now on "snot otter" is my derogatory term of choice.

Hmmm... I didn't know there were mud puppies in the Southeast. How do they stand the heat?