We have a new education animal with an exciting story. Our local bait shop contacted us this week. They had caught what looked to them like a mudpuppy or salamander larva in a bait trap. Once bait is taken out of a lake and transported elsewhere, it can no longer be released into the wild, so they called us. Did we want it for an education animal? Yes!
The “mystery creature” arrived and was immediately the center of attention because of its uniqueness. It was about 8 inches long, had a tapering finned-tail, mottled brownish in color, and pretty cool looking gills poking out of its neck area. We put it in our large freshwater aquarium so it could continue to use those cool looking gills to breathe.
But what was it? Mudpuppies are a species of salamander that has gills and are completely aquatic while salamander newts also have gills when they are young and look similar. Which did we have? We contacted some scientists about our find, sending pictures back and forth. We discovered that we did not have a mudpuppy, but instead we had a tiger salamander in its larval form. How cool! The main differences are tiger salamanders have 5 toes on their back feet and a dorsal fin that extends up the tail and back verses 4 toes and a dorsal fin that stops at the base of the tail for the mudpuppy.
With this new information I started wondering why this tiger salamander has not changed into it terrestrial form so late in the season. I discovered that on occasion they do not change at all but stay in their aquatic form depending on conditions. We have an example of this phenomenon in the story of Chomper, Wolf Ridge’s terrestrial tiger salamander.
Chomper comes from of a population of tiger salamanders that lived in an abandoned army reservoir near Baraboo, Wisconsin. Unable to escape the artificial pool, the salamanders adapted by never growing up; generations of them matured and laid eggs without ever growing out of their gilled larval stage. 50 years later, when the reservoir was to be drained, the salamanders were collected and taken into captivity, where the new, shallower conditions triggered them to change into their adult forms.
We will be watching our new addition closely for changes in its gills. If it looks like they are getting smaller, I will set up a new living situation that will allow it to leave the water when it is ready. If the gills stay the same, maybe we will have a permanent aquatic salamander living along side our fish. Either way, we have a cool story to tell everyone that meets our “mystery creature from the deep!”
-by Erin Manning