Flipping Rocks on a Friday, Mason Polencheck Hunts for Mudpuppies

By Maddie Gamble – Earlier this summer, I headed out on South Trout Lake with University of Wisconsin undergraduate Mason Polencheck on a mission – to find at least one, single mudpuppy  (Necturus maculosus). Mudpuppies are the only fully aquatic species of salamander in Wisconsin. Surveying and collecting data on these animals is a tedious activity that involves delicacy and lots of patience. Frequently, a day out in the field will result in not finding a single one. 

Mason has dedicated his summer to this intricate work for the love of all things mudpuppies and will spend the next couple of months using sampling methods like trapping, snorkeling, and shining – a nighttime mudpuppy survey method involving a flashlight – to learn more about these animals. He aims to collect data on a variety of bodies of water across the state, including rivers, reservoirs, and lakes. For each of those water bodies, Mason looks at the microbial communities, or microbiomes, that make up the mudpuppies’ ecosystem as well as mudpuppy population measurements and characteristics. He also looks to gain an estimate of how many mudpuppies are infected with the Chytrid fungus, a potentially fatal fungal disease present in our Wisconsin waters that has decimated amphibian populations around the world. . 

A head submerged in water snorkeling.
Mason snorkels in the waters of South Trout Lake looking for mudpuppies. Photo: Maddie Gamble

We hopped into a boat and headed to two different locations on South Trout Lake, hopeful to gather some data for the day. Mason strapped on his snorkeling gear at our first location and began carefully sifting through rocks on the lakebed. Meanwhile, I assembled my camera and started snapping images. As the search commenced, a loon decided to join in the research, floating just beyond our scouting site. I was excited to be able to capture some photos of it floating serenely around us but was secretly hoping the main subject of my photos that day would be mudpuppies. 

A mudpuppy hides in rocks on a lake bed.
A mudpuppy. Image credit: The Racine Journal Times

Mudpuppies find cover under rocks and logs during the day to hide themselves from predators such as fish and birds. The sun was blistering bright this day, providing us with high hopes of finding a creature burrowed in the shadows of the sediment, and, sure enough, within 20 minutes, we found our first mudpuppy – relatively small, but just as crucial to the research as any other.

We gathered length using a ruler and recorded the mudpuppy’s weight and sex and other distinguishing characteristics. Mason took microbiome samples by gently using a swab to collect data for later in the lab. He then placed the mudpuppy back at the relative location in which it was found. Instead of simply numbering the pup, Mason likes to give each one a name. I was honored to name our first find and ultimately decided that pup 59 looked very much like a “Bernie.” 

Only five minutes after releasing the first pup, we discovered a second, slightly bigger one! We followed the same procedure, recording data and taking samples. 

After a successful first location, we moved to a spot on the lake with giant boulders, known for having significantly larger-sized mudpuppies. Our luck stayed with us as we changed locations and we were able to sample two larger mudpuppies, making our total finds of the day four – a number that may seem small, but, Mason says, is on the higher end for a day out in the field. 

A blue-gloved hand swabs a mudpuppy with a cotton swab.
Mason uses a cotton swab to take a sample from the mudpuppy he found. Photo: Maddie Gamble

Both of the mudpuppies caught at our second location had unknown white, slimy organisms attached to their bodies. This was something Mason had never seen before. Luckily we work with an abundance of aquatic experts, which allows us to ask around and learn from others when we have a perplexing encounter in the field. After reaching out to an amphibian diseases and parasites expert once we were back on shore, we learned that the white organisms were more than likely leeches. 

As researchers, we always try to answer new questions and learn more about our lakes. Research is an ever-evolving process– as it grows, we grow with it. 

In the lab, Mason will use the microbiome samples to test for the Chytrid fungus and eventually produce a map of the Chytrid fungus’ presence and absence in the lakes he studies.

Mason’s mudpuppy project shows the passion Trout Lake Station researchers have for what they do.  They can spend what seems like an endless amount of time on the water performing tedious tasks and conducting time-consuming experiments,  like flipping over rocks for hours hoping to find a single salamander. 

But the smile that spreads across his face each time he finds a mudpuppy makes it all worth it. We simply love what we do.