By JENNIFER KALISH
Capital News Service
LANSING — A large number of unusual salamanders called mudpuppies washed ashore on many Lake Huron beaches during Superstorm Sandy.
“When I was walking our dogs on the beach I counted 40 in front of our home and the two houses just south of us,” said Barbara Stimpson of Fort Gratiot Township.
Five miles south of Stimpson’s home, Dave Dortman found more than 50 dead mudpuppies washed ashore within 100 feet on Lakeside Beach in Port Huron.
“I’ve lived in Port Huron my whole life and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a storm like this with such huge waves,” said Dortman, a former environmental quality analyst for the Department of Environmental Quality.
The waves on Lake Huron were hitting 23 feet before the weather buoys stopped reporting, Dortman said. “I think it was just the physical agitation of the water that tumbled the mudpuppies and ended up killing them.”
Dortman, a hobby biologist, speculates that Sandy’s unique effect on mudpuppies could have been a result of their slow-moving nature and affinity for shallow water.
“Fish have the ability to move quickly, whereas a mudpuppy is kind of a docile creature that tends to seek shelter underneath debris,” he said.
Mudpuppies are native to the Great Lakes and can grow up to 19 inches long, making them the largest salamander in the region.
They have broad, flat heads, stubby legs, beady eyes, and are extremely slimy. Their bodies are brown or bluish-gray with blue or black spots, according to David Mifsud, project administrator at the Michigan Herpetological Atlas, a project by the Department of Natural Resources and Herpetological Resource and Management to collect data on the state’s amphibians and reptiles.
And mudpuppies appear to be the only aquatic species that washed ashore in great numbers after this storm, said Mifsud, who received only two official reports of mudpuppy die-offs, but acknowledges that more probably occurred.
“The database is still relatively young,” Mifsud said. “We just launched it this year and are trying to use as many social media outlets as we can to get people to contribute.”
He’s been surveying mudpuppies since the population started tapering off in 2003 from diseases like botulism and the growing use of lampricides, a chemical that kills the larvae of invasive sea lamprey but is also toxic to amphibians.
“Most of the die-offs we’ve seen in the past have been because of known contaminants and diseases,” Mifsud said. “Storm related die-offs are something that are relatively new to us.”
Experts remain puzzled about the possible connection between Sandy and the mudpuppy situation. They say they hesitate to pinpoint the storm as the direct cause because there’s no precedent for a mudpuppy die-off from severe weather.
It could more likely be a combination of causes, said James Harding, a herpetology specialist at the Michigan State University Museum.
“It’s certainly credible that a heavy rain event could wash various pollutants into the water and cause problems,” Harding said. “But if they’re finding bucketloads of these things on the beach, there must be more going on than just high winds and rain.”
No matter the reason for their demise, the reports are disconcerting. “These big die-offs are certainly of concern, whether they’re weather-related or not,” Harding said.
Mifsud said part of the frustration in studying mudpuppies is that there hasn’t been significant data collected on the species beyond the Michigan Herpetological Atlas, and “a big challenge for studying nongame species is finding the funding to cover those costs.”
Because it’s such a cryptic species, we often only learn about them after they’re dead,” he said.
And some anglers mistakenly believe that mudpuppies eat game fish, which makes them unpopular in some circles, he said.
On the contrary, they’ve been observed feeding on invasive species like round gobies, rusty crayfish and possibly zebra mussels.
The post-Sandy phenomenon wasn’t limited to the Michigan shore of Lake Huron.
A Sarnia man said the beach in front of his home was covered with about 1,000 dead or dying amphibians.
“There was about one mudpuppy for every foot of beach,” Tony Roach said. “When I went down there, I thought they were mostly dead because it was the day after the storm.”
When he realized that many were still alive, he grabbed a snow shovel and moved 800 or so back into the water. Roach said he shoveled for a few hours until he was exhausted.
“It was only me out there,” he said.
Jennifer Kalish writes for Great Lakes Echo