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


 
Across the nation and around the world, introduced species are raising concerns, and sometimes havoc, in ecosystems. Central Maine is no exception.

America has become home to starlings and killer bees, zebra mussels and the northern snakehead fish. Fire ants, giant nutria rats, West Nile virus and monkey pox. By land, water, air, even in bloodstreams, invasive species have arrived, and they are here to stay.

A 1999 report from Cornell University's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences claims invading non-indigenous species in the United States do more than $138 billion in damage per year. The report says there are some 50,000 foreign species and the number will only grow.

Many were introduced purposefully, often by people whose intentions were better than their judgment. (We have starlings, for example, because in 1890 Eugene Scheiffelin thought America should enjoy all the birds mentioned by Shakespeare.) Others show up accidentally, arriving in ships' ballast or the soil around nursery plants. Still others escape from well-intentioned scientists,and therein lies a Colby tale.

It begins in the late 1930s on Great Pond, the setting of E.B. White's "Once More to the Lake" and Ernest Thompson's On Golden Pond. Read White's elegant essay, published in 1941, and you'll realize the lakes were quieter in his time. There were fewer people to notice a Colby biology professor and his students keeping salamanders in the stream between Salmon Lake and Great Pond. It was easier for White and his son to catch a bass then.

To a herpetologist (and, doubtless, few others), the common mudpuppy, Necturus maculosus maculosus, is a wonderful creature. It's a big salamander that never leaves the water, "breathing" through colorful external gills around its head. Because of its size, typically up to 13 inches long, it's a good lab specimen for dissections and the study of various parts.

But in the 1950s when ice-fishermen and women hoping to land a trout or a white perch instead began to pull mudpuppies up through the ice, they were not pleasantly surprised,visualize an action-figure sized Creature from the Black Lagoon that thrashes.

"It's a terrifying childhood memory," recalls Leone Donovan, a Waterville native whose parents fished Great Pond when mudpuppies first began to freak out unsuspecting anglers. "It was like the devil incarnate. I had nightmares about mudpuppies."
 
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