Chuck Murray, a fisheries biologist with the Pennsylvania
Fish and Boat Commission, scanned the choppy waters of Lake
Erie from the deck of a Fish Commission boat and was stunned.
Floating around the boat were dozens of dead mudpuppies.
"None were alive from the dozens we saw in a relatively
small area around the boat," Murray said. "We were in the
open lake, so if you extrapolate from that, there were probably
hundreds, if not thousands. With all the whitecaps we could
not get an accurate count."
Mudpuppies in Lake Erie are dying, and no one knows why.
"What we are seeing is significant, primarily because of
the numbers. We usually don't see mudpuppies that much,"
said Roger Kenyon, the Fish and Boat Commissions senior
Lake Erie fishery biologist. "Something is going on, but
none of us knows what, although we all have a lot of ideas."
Mudpuppies are an unusual amphibian, spending their entire
life in the larval stage as an aquatic creature, never emerging
on land like most other amphibians.
Although common in Lake Erie, they remain unknown to many
beachgoers, boaters and even fishermen. However, once seen,
they are seldom forgotten.
Adults are commonly eight- to 13-inches long. A feathery
set of reddish gills that billow out from each side of the
head are one of the animal's most striking features.
However, the size and color of the gills can vary as a result
of water conditions. In color, the mudpuppy often appears
gray to rusty brown on its back, which is showered with
blue-black spots. Its belly is pale and accented with dark
spots, according to the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission's
"Pennsylvania Amphibians and Reptiles " field guide.
In Pennsylvania, they are found not just in Lake Erie, but
in the Allegheny River system, including French Creek, where
there have been no reports of unusual mortality.
Reports of mudpuppy kills in the Erie area began surfacing
around the first of June. Reports have since come from Ohio,
New York, Pennsylvania and Ontario waters, said Eric Obert,
Pennsylvania Sea Grant environmental specialist.
Since the initial reports of mudpuppy die offs, there have
also been scattered reports of relatively small fish die
offs, including in Presque Isle Bay.
"The mudpuppies kind of disturb me," Obert said. "They are
pretty much a bottom feeding animal. It just doesn't seem
However, over the past couple of years, there have been
a handful of reports of mudpuppy deaths elsewhere in the
lake around the time of fish die offs, which many believe
are linked to outbreaks of avian botulism, Murray said.
One of the reasons everyone is aware of the recent die offs
of mudpuppies is a tracking system put in place by the Avian
Botulism Task Force formed by researchers and agencies throughout
the Great Lakes. When a die off occurs, it is reported to
the different members of the task force through an e-mail
list and catalogued.
Avian botulism first surfaced in the Erie area in July 1999
when dead gulls, waterfowl and other birds began turning
up by the dozens on Presque Isle beaches and elsewhere along
the Lake Erie shoreline. The outbreak returned in 2000 and
Every year there were also corresponding fish die offs,
puzzling researchers. In August 2001, it was determined
that, at least in some cases, fish were dying from Type
E avian botulism, the same strain responsible for the bird
deaths in the region.
Researchers are still unsure of the origination of the botulism
toxin and its travel through the food chain.
Because of the history of botulism in the region, it is
a suspect in the mudpuppy deaths.
"There is always the suspicion that botulism may have a
hand in this (the recent mudpuppy die offs), but there's
no proof. There are a lot of other suspects as well," Kenyon
Possibilities include other toxins such as that produced
by certain blue-green algae, viruses, unusual stress factors,
water quality issues and probably others yet to even be
considered, he said.
The federal National Wildlife Health Center in Madison,
Wis., is joining in the effort to fund the cause.
Area researchers are seeking live, but obviously distressed
mudpuppies to be sent to the center for analysis. Fish Commission
crews will be out this week trawling for sample mudpuppies
to send to the center, Murray said.
New York officials forwarded samples Thursday, said Grace
McLaughlin, Ph.D., a wildlife disease specialist with the
"We don't have a lot of experience with mudpuppies," McLaughlin
said. "We don't have a lot of examples that we know of,
of these kinds of die offs. It will be very interesting
to see what is causing it."
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