The Great Mudpuppy Escape (Sort Of)

The Great Mudpuppy Escape (Sort Of)

The origin of unusually large salamanders in the Belgrade Lakes? A Colby professor was the culprit.

By Stephen Collins '74

To the uninitiated the mudpuppy is a brown, spotted, slimy creature that looks like a cross between an eel and a kimodo dragon. The literature describes its body as "muscular" with four short legs. It has a broad, flat head and a face not unlike a turtle's, behind which a fan of bushy red external gills encircles its neck, like a stegosaurus wearing a feather boa.

The record specimen was 17 inches long.

It didn't just scare children, either. Great Pond was a serious sport fishery, sufficiently renowned that the day the ice went out a notice was posted in New York's Grand Central Station. With increased pressure as an increasingly mobile American population gained access to the lakes, and following an earlier inadvertent introduction, this one of walleyed pike by the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, Great Pond could ill afford another threat.

In 1960, Denton W. Crocker, a biology professor at Colby, published an account in Maine Field Naturalist of the accidental introduction of mudpuppies into Great Pond. He quoted a letter from an earlier Colby biology professor, Henry W. Aplington, who described bringing about 200 very young necturi to Colby from Pennsylvania for study. "I arranged to keep the animals in a wire mesh trap in the stream at the fish hatchery (then in use) between Salmon Lake and Great Pond," wrote Aplington. "That autumn, about 85 got away through a hole which a stone must have punched in the wire netting," He and his students tried to recover the specimens, but it was too late.

Colby's Dana Professor of Geology Emeritus Donaldson Koons confided, "It was probably raccoons that got into the cage. That's what Aplington told me."

Rocks or raccoons, the mud puppies got away.

"Unfortunately," Aplington's letter continues, "this is not the whole story." A subsequent batch of mudpuppies that he purchased from a scientific supply company were kept at the same hatchery several years later. "Despite the earlier experience these animals (all adults) also got away," he confessed.

After publishing a scholarly chapter about mudpuppies' gonads (ah, yes), Aplington departed Colby in 1947, for Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania. No one thought much about mudpuppies for another 10 years. Giant aquatic salamanders were unknown in Maine waters, though they do range north of the state in the St. Lawrence River and inhabit central portions of the Connecticut River, the border between Vermont and New Hampshire.
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