Peculiar salamander a key indicator of water quality

BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) Clean water isn't just important to avoid algae blooms. It's also crucial to the survival of some species, including a special salamander.

When you look at them, mudpuppies are kind of cute in a weird way. Fully grown, these slimy salamanders are almost a foot long. They can live for up to 30 years, and though they are not native to Vermont, they are found in rivers leading to Lake Champlain and the Connecticut River.

And as visitors at ECHO Leahy Center learned Tuesday morning, unlike other salamanders, mudpuppies stay underwater for their whole lives. To breathe, they absorb oxygenated water through their skin and feathery gills. And that means any chemicals in their water also get in.

"They prefer cold, clean, highly-oxygenated water, so pretty pure water," said Bill Kilpatrick, a University of Vermont biology professor.

But between pollution and pesticides, pure water can be hard to come by. Even well-intentioned state and federal efforts to reduce numbers of parasitic sea lamprey have unintended consequences. An estimated 500 or so mudpuppies were killed in the Lamoille River in 2009 after lampricide treatments. Addressing the lamprey problem requires a careful balance.

"I think we're doing the best we can now, and hopefully down the road we can figure out better treatments for lamprey so we can have the system that we should have out in the lake, but maybe not have some of the side effects from the things that we do," said ECHO's Steve Smith.

Currently mudpuppies are listed as a Species of Special Concern in Vermont. Which means they are rare. For years, advocates have been trying to get them listed as Threatened with the state of Vermont, including this year. That decision hasn't been made yet. But one of the reasons the state has been hesitant is that they're hard to study. They're nocturnal, and that makes them difficult to track.

"It's really hard to have an accurate assessment of the population because of their lifestyle," Smith said. But he says if you want to help them, or other amphibians, you can start by using fewer chemicals in your gardens. And in return, you just might get some help with pesky pests. "One thing to remember is that amphibians eat insects. I personally think we have enough insects in the world so I would like there to be a lot of amphibians."