What Is This Thing?

105182105411111CDPBy Neva Bodin

The thick, muddy water was moving. Some unknown creatures were zig-zagging through the chocolate-colored soup, being careful to stay just below the surface and not be seen.

The early fall mountaintop meadow was warm, bathed in bright sunshine at noontime, and redolent with green grasses and mountain sunflowers. It was a byway for cattle drives and flocks of sheep moving to mountain pastures in the spring. A man-made watering hole caught run-off in the middle of the meadow, and had become a muddy pond now in early September.

HPIM0352.JPG

The dead mudpuppy beside the mountain meadow pond.

It soon became evident what caused the moving squiggles in the pond when I found a strange looking, reddish brown, fish-shaped animal, about 10 inches long, lying on the bank of sunbaked mud near the water. No longer alive, it lay testimony to the variety, and combination of features in this creature that in my mind defied evolution. It was a mud-puppy. I had never seen one before.

Most animals have either lungs, for living on land or breathing above water, or gills, for living in water. But some animals exist that have both. Consider the mudpuppy.

Mudpuppy JPEG

A live mudpuppy

Mudpuppies are a type of salamander. A salamander is a creature resembling a lizard, only it has moist skin and no scales. Mudpuppies are more complicated. They are the only aquatic species of salamander according to one source. Aquatic means “living or found in or near water” according to Merriam-Webster dictionary.

In genealogy, they are in the class of amphibia. Other amphibia, cold-blooded vertebrate animals, live in the water as young or newly hatched animals, such as toads and frogs, but use their lungs as adults and must breathe air. Very few species spend their entire life in water.

Salamanders have gills when they are very young, and lose them as they get older. Like humans, most salamanders must breathe air. Although a type of salamander, mudpuppies never lose their gills as they become adults. They develop lungs, while retaining gills as they mature, and they can breathe in a limited amount through their skin. However, they must rely on their gills as the primary way to get oxygen to their bodies.

Mudpuppies have three sets of gills on either side of their head. Their external gills are feathery in appearance and are described as looking like ostrich plumes by some. They can be reddish in color. On the deceased specimen I found, they were very dark colored. They also have four legs with four toes each, and a fin on their tail. Their heads are flat. One might call them a “fishy salamander”!

Mudpuppies are also called “water dogs,” because they make a small barking sound! They are the only amphibian to vocalize.

They don’t lay eggs until they are six years old. In spring, a mama mudpuppy lays up to 160 eggs in an underwater burrow, then stays to protect them. This is very unusual for types of salamanders. However, when the babies hatch after one to two months, they are on their own.

Mudpuppies grow to an average length of 13 inches. They are a nocturnal animal—preferring to be out only at night—but will come out during the day if the water is murky as it was the day I visited the muddy pond. Life span varies widely from eleven to twenty five years.

For protection, mucus glands secrete a slimy covering on their skin, and granular glands secrete poison to turn predators away. While I couldn’t visualize the live animals in the muddy water, the ripples they created as I walked around the pool indicated they traveled fast under water. Their short legs would not promote speed on land.

Mudpuppies have two rows of teeth and can shape their mouths to act like suction cups. They eat insects, spiders, mollusks, earthworms, annelids, small fish and other amphibians. It is not known what may eat a mudpuppy, but crayfish and water snakes may feed on them. Fishermen are thought to be their main predators, catching and discarding them while fishing.

If a mudpuppy could ponder his situation, he might feel confused as to whether God made him a land or an aquatic animal. They are complex and fascinating animals. There are You Tube videos of them, which I watched to confirm I had identified this strange creature correctly.

I love our mountain camping trips and the discoveries we make during them.

I love our camping trips and the discoveries we make during them.

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10 Responses to What Is This Thing?

  1. Mike Staton says:

    Always good to learn something new, and I did just now with the online education course on mudpuppies. Just fascinating… a critter with gills and vestiges of lungs.

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  2. Thank you for this post Neva. I have never heard of mudpuppies and it is fascinating (as Mike said) to learn about this strange lizard/fish. The facts are so interesting. I just learned something new too! Glad you enjoyed your time in the mountains.

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  3. Doris says:

    Fascinating. Life is full of unique and endlessly intriguing things to learn. I’m glad you go camping and I’m glad you share what you learn. Doris

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  4. I’ve lived in Wyoming for over twenty years and never heard of a mudpuppy until now. This is interesting.

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  5. We had these creatures in Iowa — as a kid, at first I was scared of them then as I grew into a teenager and spent more time outdoors, studying critters, I found them fascinating. Didn’t know Wyoming had them — thanks for the great information on this “weird” creature, Neva! Happy travels!

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  6. Nancy Jardine says:

    Fabulous. Your post and also the creature, Neva. I’ve not heard of them but they are quite big. They do look like a still evolving species- which I guess, in a way, they are.

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  7. Kathy Waller says:

    A TEN-INCH, four-legged fish-looking thing that barks? I just looked up mudpuppy to see whether I have a chance of running into one. Don’t think so. I’d heard the word but had no idea what it referred to. Found a picture of one with gill “feathers” around his neck (if you can call it a neck). It looked like he was wearing a red boa. Neat post!

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  8. Wranglers says:

    When my husband and I first saw one we thought it was prehistoric animal. We yld Dad about it and he laughed and said it was just an old mud dog. Loved this post , very informative. I love unusual animals. Cher’ley

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  9. sstamm625 says:

    Interesting! I did not know about mudpuppies, Neva!

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  10. S. J. Brown says:

    Thanks for sharing. I will be adding mudpuppies to my wish list for the warmer days to come.

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