Mudpuppy Night in Oxford Mills: It's your only chance to see an active Amphibian when the air temperature is -26 C!
ADDRESS: Eastern Ontario Biodiversity Museum, Box 1860, Kemptville, Ontario K0G 1J0 e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
History of Mudpuppy Night
CHORUS: Necturus maculosus - they prowl the winter nights.
The tadpole is their snack food, the Crayfish their delight.
When Oxford Mills, incurious, has tucked itself in tight,
They wander, cleaning up the creek, beneath the shelves of ice.
The dam in Oxford Mills has got an ancient pedigree:
The province nearly tore it down in 1963.
Repaired, it bars the Rideau Carp from running up the stream,
And stymies springtime Mudpout to support a fishery.
The summer creek below the dam is golden, clear, and warm.
Pearlly Clams and twiggy Caddis larvae root around,
Red-eyed Rock Bass fan their fins behind each standing stone,
And giant neotenic mothers guard their broods alone.
In August when the gold-striped offspring leave the nest at last
There's no idea of hibernating to let winter pass.
Their mating season (no one's seen it) may well be a blast,
And everything that moves becomes their wintery repast.
Salamanders generally do well when its cool
(Ambystoma walks over snowdrifts on its breeding stroll),
And these aquatic wanderers are faithful to this rule:
They fatten up on ice-stunned fish in riffle and in pool.
Below the dam in January, on the bedrock floor,
At first you just see one, and then there's more and more and more,
Stepping with their little feet and stubby fingers four,
They fan red gills and flex broad tails beside the spillway's roar.
If you say "keystone predator," I think "Necturus" now.
Most creeks lack winter foragers, and so we must allow
Their presence here transforms the stream. Though we may not know how,
Around these long-lived Salamanders the creek's life revolves.
Mudpuppies -- as "fish with legs and ears" -- have long been persecuted and destroyed. Because they looked strange and ate some fish, they have been accused of being poisonous and of harming sport fisheries. Ice-fishers are said to leave incidentally captured Mudpuppies to die on the ice. Early in the course of the Ontario Herpetofaunal Summary, Mike Oldham proclaimed a Mudpuppy Year, but he never got much of a response from the OMNR or naturalists, and public sympathy for this species of foot-long permanently-aquatic Salamander has been hard to arouse.
Herpetologists from the National Museum have been studying Mudpuppies -- as Necturus maculosus -- in Kemptville Creek, 60 km S of Ottawa, since 1979, but sporadic efforts to publicize this population didn't have much effect. In the grand tradition of commercial people's response to natural history phenomena, public indifference has been awe-inspiring. When they are shown Mudpuppies, individual People respond normally, but somehow when they congeal into a political mass they forget anything they may have learned about the distinctiveness of ‘these long-lived Salamanders.' Since there are no provincial standards for Mudpuppies, they have been ignored in planning the fate of the creek where they live.
I was alerted to the existence of Mudpuppies in Kemptville Creek by captives held by the Dean boys in 1979, but they were not otherwise locally well-known. Then, on a very cold December night in 1989, Rae Johnson tried out a new searchlight below the dam at Oxford Mills, and noticed many Necturus in the water. Minnowtrapping and other capture methods indicate that ‘these aquatic wanderers' get out and forage in the winter, but only at Oxford Mills have they been repeatedly observed in large numbers throughout the winter.
In 1997 Marie Parry opened Maries' Treats & Treasures in Oxford Mills. One day in 1998 when we sloshed into the cafe with a 'puppy in a pail, she expressed astonishment that such things lived in the creek, and offered her facility as a venue for a public-education programme. We called ourselves "Mudpuppy Night in Oxford Mills" to contrast our activites with those of televised gangs of guys trying to knock a lump of rubber between pipes. Every Friday night, at 20:00 hrs, until the spring thaw, one or more families showed up. Attendance fell off a little in 1999-2000, but has markedly increased in 2000-2001. We've featured these outings in our museum advertising, publicized them in newspapers, and exhibited Mudpuppies at public events. It's hard to say how many People we've reached, but the formal attention paid to this population should make it harder for authorities to ignore its welfare in future planning of the fate of the creek.
In 1999-2000 a portable lead-acid rechargeable battery unit (as sold for jumping vehicles) and a 200,000 candle power searchlight revolutionized our view of Mudpuppies, making the bottom more clearly visible than it is during the day. We see 30-75 Mudpuppies on nights with low water levels, walking up through the current, prowling the bottom, or feeding on fish and Crayfish. Sometimes mist or foam or flakes of ice on the water surface makes it hard to see the bottom, and you have to stare for several minutes of retinal processing and fortuitous eddies before ‘you just see one, and then there's more and more and more.' When the main channel is deep and fast, they may be in the shallows and backwaters. At times of cold weather, most of the area freezes over, and we hack shelves of ice from the shore and push them downstream, exposing any Mudpuppies under the ice. When the channel is free of ice and is shallow (30-45 cm) you can wade across the creek, observing Necturus in midstream. Even on the nights of highest water, I am able to dipnet at least one, to bring back to shore to show around.
We speculate about possible courtship behaviour when we see them sidling up alongside one another, but haven't seen any overt mating behaviour. Because ice cover and water levels are so different from one week to the next, we don't try to do anything more than count those we see, but the distinctive spotting patterns would certainly allow individual recognition: someone in a long-term (or Masters') project would soon reach the point of saying "Oh look, there's Mary-Jane." When we're done we retired to Maries' (now the tonier Brigadoon, since Maries' has closed) to drink hot beverages, tell lies, and wheedle authorization for desserts out of parents.
Now it's the turn of other naturalists across the province to get out and find similar venues of winter activity in their streams. The site is so ideal at Oxford Mills that we don't know if ‘looking for Mudpuppies below dams in the winter' will be useful elsewhere. But if naturalists don't check lots of dams, we'll never know. Before inviting public participation, it's essential to intimately know the topography of the bottom, the patterns of ice formation, and the flow of the water under the ice. Wear hip waders, and if the ice gives way under you, preserve an expression of imperturbability, as if you had planned any breakage as a means of removing ice.
If we're going to make progress in herpetological conservation, we must make People aware of the herpetofauna they live with, and forge totemic relationships with rare and distinctive populations. We must teach how each species'abundance shows that People are succeeding in living sustainably: either on the basis of the habitat they require, their vulnerability to explotation, or, as in this case, their unique adaptations.
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COMMENTS: This gives the history of the Mudpuppy Night celebration (Canada: Ontario: Grenville County: North Grenville Township: Oxford Mills Dam, Kemptville Creek. 44.96486N 75.67863W.), the text of the song, and some of the conservation implications. No one has yet found another place where Mudpuppies can be viewed in the winter. There's an error in the song: the dam was actually repaired in 1959. 'Mudpout' is the local English name for the Brown bullhead, Ameirus nebulosus. F.W.Schueler - March 2003.