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Great Lakes Article:

Lake Erie mudpuppies dying


By John Bartlett
Erie Times

07/02/2002

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 normal."

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 2001.

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 said.

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 center.

"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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