HEGEWISCH — Salamanders with adorable red manes call Chicago’s Far South Side home — but they’re at risk this fall and winter, and local researchers are starting a campaign to save them.
The Association for the Wolf Lake Initiative is launching a Save the Mudpuppy campaign this fall to educate people — especially fishermen — about the common mudpuppy, a salamander with a large population in Hegewisch’s Wolf Lake at William W. Powers State Recreation Area, 12949 S. Avenue O.
Mudpuppies breed in late fall and stay active all winter, according to the group. People ice fishing on the lake sometimes catch the mudpuppies and don’t immediately return them to the water, which can kill them, said association Executive Director Michael Boos.
“They don’t [always] know what a mudpuppy is, for one thing,” Boos said. “So they don’t know what to do when they bring it in. We wanted to let them know that a mudpuppy is an aquatic animal and that it can’t survive on land. So if they catch one, they must return immediately to the water. Otherwise, they’ll die.”
Mudpuppies are a threatened species in Illinois and endangered in other states.
The association is putting up educational signs and providing pamphlets and other materials in public spaces, including at libraries and nearby schools in Illinois and Indiana. They tell people what a mudpuppy is, what they look like and what a fisherman should do if they catch one, Boos said.
Members may also host seminars and other events, said association President Philip Willink.
The Save the Mudpuppy campaign is being done in partnership with the Shedd Aquarium and the Fund for Wild Nature.
Willink said the Association’s mudpuppy campaign began as a joint project between Shedd Aquarium, which was interested in creating an exhibit on amphibians, and Southern Illinois University.
In 2014, SIU Carbondale master’s student Alicia Beattie started studying the biology and ecology of mudpuppies in Lake Michigan near the Shedd Aquarium. Rough waves made researching difficult, so her project was moved to Wolf Lake, said Jared Bilak, a doctoral candidate at SIU Carbondale who continued Beattie’s research and has been studying mudpuppies for the project since 2016.
“It’s crazy that this threatened species throughout the state is found right there in Chicago,” Bilak said.
Association for the Wolf Lake Initiative members think more research on the mudpuppies, coupled with a greater public awareness of the animals, can help protect the salamanders.
“A lot of people don’t see them or even know they’re there. And then when people do see them, they don’t know what to do with them,” Willink said. “They’re either curious or they think perhaps they’re a threat to the fishery, like maybe they’re going to be competing with birds or bass or whatever they’re trying to catch.
“So this campaign is trying to draw attention to how interesting these animals are.”
The campaign starts this month and continues into next year, Boos said.
Willink said working on the Save the Mudpuppy campaign helped shine a light on the Calumet region in general, its industrial history and how it’s perceived to be a “degraded wasteland” despite the biodiversity of the region, he said.
“We’re kind of exploring the relationship between people, the environment, industry and all those types of things in an urban setting,” Willink said. “The success of mudpuppies and other species in Wolf Lake and the Calumet region has spurned on this other project that’s causing us to reevaluate our relationship with the environment in urban settings and what we should do as we move forward through the 21st century.”
Boos said he hopes the mudpuppy can survive for a long time at Wolf Lake through the campaign and future efforts.
“I’m an environmentalist, and I don’t want the mudpuppy to go away because they perform an important role in the active [Wolf Lake] watershed,” he said. “They’re part of it, and I don’t think anybody wants to see them go away.”
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