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Denison of the Deep

We were lying on our west rock last summer, soaking up sunshine and listening to the squeals of delight from children swimming nearby. Then the happy sounds changed as a shriek of terror shattered the otherwise tranquil afternoon.

“What? What is it? Why are you screaming?” we heard the father ask his daughter. We didn’t hear her response, only her father’s exasperated reply. “No. There are not sharks in the River.”

We chuckled to ourselves. Swimming, especially late in the season, so close to shore one encounters aquatic plants—or weeds as we usually refer to them—that can tickle or terrify, igniting our imagination that there is something nefarious lurking down there, intent on nibbling at our toes or more.

I think everyone at one time has paused to wonder what lurks beneath the surface of the River: giant carp, muskies, eels, sea monsters or perhaps even sharks! We encountered an odd denizen of the deep, for the first time, a couple of decades ago. Our kids were six and eight then and came running into the cottage to report that there were two snakes fighting on the west rock. I grabbed my camera and followed them back to the west rock.


A life and death struggle.

Photos courtesy McElfresh Collection

There I found two creatures wrapped around each other, writhing in a life and death struggle. One I recognized as a northern water snake. The other creature was much smaller and spotted. At first, I thought it was a fish, because it had gills. It’s tail was also fish-like. But then I noticed legs. What was it? Had we discovered a new breed of creature? Was this the missing link between fish and land animals?Golden Book collection

The snake won, suffocating the odd creature. We watched as the snake slowly swallowed its prey whole. It took nearly twenty minutes.

These were the days before the internet. Thankfully, my mother-in-law had a fine library of Golden Field Guides in the cottage. Since it had legs, I decided to start with the “Reptile and Amphibian Golden Guide”. I flipped through the book many times searching each page for an illustration that matched the creature I’d seen devoured on the west rock. There on page 138, I found a “mudpuppy.”xxxx

Since that time, I probably see a mudpuppy about every other year—always in the jaws of a northern water snake—which is probably the only way I could see it as its natural habitat is on the bottom of the river, usually under a rock or a log. So if it weren’t for the northern water snake, I would never know that mudpuppies exist.

Mudpuppies are aquatic salamanders with flat heads, wide tails, four stubby legs each with four toes. The guidebook says there are either gray, or brownish-gray with blue-black spots. Some guides say a rusty-brown body with dark spots. The name was odd to me as they don’t look like a dog or a puppy. The Golden Field Guide didn’t address the origin of their name. Thank goodness we have the Internet now. Apparently mudpuppies are one of the few salamanders that make noise. I found a YouTube video of a mudpuppy on a rock “barking.” It really did sound like the whining bark of a little puppy.

I suppose we are lucky to have mudpuppies in the area. They are very sensitive to pollution so their presence indicates good water quality. Mudpuppies are active through the winter, so they can only live in rivers or lakes that don’t freeze completely.

Last year, a large water snake decided to dine on a mudpuppy right next to the entrance to our dock. We were in the process of loading the boat for a dump run and our constant trips to and fro made the snake decide to move. It held the dead mudpuppy high above the surface of the water and swam to the other side of the rock away from the path to the boathouse. The snake found a nice remote area to swallow its prey away from our heavy footsteps.



Going… Going…




Open wide!


Northern Water Snake bit off more than he could chew…  



And the mudpuppy escaped!

I usually only see the surface of our wonderful River and its beautiful palate of colors, but I often wonder what miraculous creatures are lurking beneath the surface. I’m certain there are plenty of creatures on the River bottom, from mollusks to mudpuppies. And even though I know there are no sharks in the River, doesn’t mean that next summer when I’m swimming off the dock and feel something touch my leg, I won’t flinch just a little.

By Lynn E. McElfresh, Grenell Island

Lynn McElfresh has not shirked her TI Life responsibilities this winter… This article is not only interesting, but gives us food for thought for Summer 2018. I, for one, will be watching out for a whole bunch of new creatures – as if Goby Fish and zebra mussels are not enough! ( Be sure to see Sea Serpent from the March 2018 issue) This is Lynn’s 111th article; and like the sea serpents… let us know if you too, have seen one of these mudpuppies… !

Posted in: Nature
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Pat Stonehouse
Comment by: Pat Stonehouse
Left at: 10:10 AM Sunday, April 15, 2018
Great story. Never knew about mud puppies till now.
Linda Twichell
Comment by: Linda Twichell
Left at: 2:27 PM Sunday, April 15, 2018
Hi Lynn! Love this article! We are very fond of mudpuppies in our neck of the woods. (It's one of the perks of living with a mud bottom.) I read that mudpuppies are nocturnal, which is why we rarely see them. Did your guide book say that? I also read that they can live 30 years or more because they have few natural enemies. Guess my source forgot about snakes!! WE have had a concern in the last decade that after a lifetime on the river, we are beginning to find dead mudpuppies on the river bottom. Usually one or two per year, but nevertheless, disconcerting. A Riverman suggested to me that it might be botulism. I am wondering if runoff from lawn chemicals could be to blame. Now that you have shared this great story, maybe people will keep an eye out for these creatures. I wonder if they are the canaries in our coal mine. Linda
Mary Alice Snetsinger
Comment by: Mary Alice Snetsinger
Left at: 4:51 PM Monday, April 16, 2018
Anyone who is really interested in Mudpuppies should consider attending one of Fred Schueler's Mudpuppy Nights during the winter in Bishops Mills.
Wayne Strauss
Comment by: Wayne Strauss
Left at: 6:43 AM Tuesday, April 17, 2018
Thank you for the terrific article, Lynn! One time, when I was a kid,we were delighted to see this most unusual creature and wondered what it was. We were all the MORE delighted when one of our River-expert neighbors identified it as a mud puppy. (We also wondered whether he had made up that name on the spot, but thought it was great anyway.) Haven't seen one since - but will keep an eye out now, for sure! I would dearly love to be the "old guy" (!?!) who introduces a bunch of River kids to the mud puppy...
Lynn McElfresh
Comment by: Lynn McElfresh
Left at: 3:58 AM Wednesday, April 18, 2018
Wow! I'm overwhelmed by the response to mudpuppies. Thanks for all your comments. Love learning more about these odd creatures.