Home | Amphibians | The Natural History and Captive Care of the Mudpuppy – Part 1

The Natural History and Captive Care of the Mudpuppy – Part 1

MudpuppyA Mudpuppy (Necturus maculosus) was the first large aquatic salamander I kept in captivity, and I remain as intrigued by them today as I was in childhood.  Increasingly rare in the wild, Mudpuppies or Waterdogs make quite hearty captives if attention is given to their unique needs. Today we’ll take a peek at their lives in the wild, and move on to husbandry in Part 2.


The Mudpuppy shares the Family Proteidae with 4 similar species, all native to North America, and the Olm (Proteus anguinus).  The Olm, limited in distribution to Northern Italy and the Balkans, spends its entire life in subterranean streams (please see photo of white salamanders). I’ll highlight this blind, other-worldly creature in the future.


Occasionally reaching 17 inches in length, the Mudpuppy is among North America’s largest salamanders.  They sport feathery, red external gills and are variably colored in shades of gray, brown or rust.


Mudpuppies range from Southeastern Manitoba and Southern Quebec through the Mississippi River drainage to Northern Georgia and Louisiana.  Those in the Hudson and several neighboring rivers are believed by some to have been introduced.


These entirely aquatic bottom-dwellers inhabit streams, lakes and rivers.  They may be found in shallow and deep water, with one individual being taken at a depth of 90 feet (Lake Michigan).

Population density is largely governed by the presence of suitable hiding and breeding sites, i.e. logs, rock slabs and undercut banks.


Mudpuppies are believed declining throughout much of their range.  Actual population levels are difficult to assess due to their nocturnal, secretive ways, but they are threatened by siltation and pollutants.

Mudpuppies are sometimes killed as by-catch in recreational and commercial fishing operations, and are (hopefully “were”!) used as fishing bait.  They are considered endangered in New York, Maryland, Indiana and North Carolina.


One captive reached 34 years of age; longevity in the wild possibly exceeds 20 years.


Mudpuppies mate in the fall, with communal breeding sites occasionally recorded.  Males deposit spermatophores (sperm-filled capsules) on the substrate; females take these into the cloaca with the cloacal lips.

The eggs, 30-90 in number, are deposited in the spring.  They are attached to the roof of a natural or self-made depression below a rock or log, and are guarded by the female until hatching occurs (5-9 weeks).  Maturity is reached in 4-6 years.

Mudpuppies are neotenic – the larvae retain external gills (they also develop lungs) and do not transform into terrestrial adults.


Crayfishes, caddis fly larvae, shrimps, snails and other aquatic invertebrates, fishes, earthworms, salamanders and tadpoles.

Additional Information

OlmsThe common names refer to the erroneous belief that these salamanders “bark” when disturbed and to the fact that the head appears dog-like at certain angles.

Much like fishes, Mudpuppies possess a system of sensory organs (the lateral line) along the sides of the body that detects changes in water motion and pressure.

Unlike most amphibians, Mudpuppies do not hibernate, and even feed throughout the winter.  In fact, studies indicate that winter foraging may be increased in order to take advantage of the fact that predatory fishes are less active at this time.

Mudpuppies can obtain oxygen from either air or water, using lungs, gills or the skin.  Individuals from warm ponds have large gills; the gills of those inhabiting well-oxygenated rivers are reduced in size.

Further Reading

This interesting article explores the possibility of Mudpuppy introductions in the Northeast.




  1. avatar

    I know of many people in my town that do not know what a salamander is and it’s really sad that there is not much public awareness for mudpuppies and other species of salamanders because people often get caught up in rumors and myths about them and when they come across a salamander they will kill it because they think it is either poisonous or very aggressive.

    • avatar

      Hello Nigel, Frank Indiviglio here.

      Thanks for your thoughts. I’ve heard that mudpuppies and hellbenders are often caught on fishing lines (but I’ve never found one by fishing…only by turning stones, and then rarely!) and that they are often killed or the line is cut. Hard to imagine someone thinking such creatures could be dangerous, but it does seem a widespread belief.

      Hope to hear more from you,

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  2. avatar

    Hi i caught some mudpuppies from a creek near my house and all of a sudden when brought them home in a tank they started to go belly up and they got bubbles or air pockets in them that i can see and i don’t know what to do please help me and let me know soon bc they are still alive for now i had 5 but now i have 1 healthy one and i took the other one’s out bc i wuz afraid the 1 healthy one would catch what the other one’s had. I live in P.A. and i caught the mudpuppies at indian trail park.

    • avatar

      Hello Kayla, Frank Indiviglio here.

      Thanks for your interest in our blog. Mudpuppies are not easy to keep unless you’ve had a good deal of experience with delicate amphibians. What you describe is usually related to a bacterial infection, often brought on by a combination of high temperatures and poor water quality (gasses produced by the bacteria cause the animals to float).

      Mudpuppies need very clean water and temperatures of 65-72 F; a strong filter and large aquarium (30-55 gallons for a single adult) is essential. Highly oxygenated water is also a must – they have lungs but breathe via gills preferentially.

      Please note also that mudpuppies are considered by PA Fish and Game Dept. to be “Of Special Concern” and therefore should not be collected.

      The larvae of most of PA’s other 20-22 species of salamander resemble mudpuppies. Mudpuppies are usually diffiult to find, so I’m wondering perhaps if you have a larval salamander of another species? In any event, I believe it best to release the remaining animal. Please let me know if you are interested in locating other types of captive bred salamanders that make better captives than mudpuppies.

      Please let me know if you need any further information. Good luck, enjoy and please keep me posted.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  3. avatar

    Thanks the place that i catch them is at indian trail park in p.a. and the salamanders that i usually see they are black with usually a yellow stripe going down the middle and i didn’t know that the mudpuppies are a concern so i’ll just let them go to whenever i go up to indian trail park in the summer and the mudpuppies are usually like a brownish color with dark spots and they have like a reddish algae lookin gill and don’t forget i catch them in a creek.

    • avatar

      Hello Kayla,

      Thanks for the feedback. Very interesting….you may have come across a specific habitat for young mudpuppies (which are often hard to find); perhaps larger animals move into deeper waters (if the creek enters a river/lake?). They are most likely mudpuppies, given the size you mention. In PA, only tiger salamander larvae get that large, but they usually inhabit temporary pools, not streams. PA Fish and Game may be interested in your find.

      I look forward to hearing more about what you see.

      Please let me know if you need any further information. Good luck, enjoy and please keep me posted.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  4. avatar

    Yeah me and my friend last summer we found a baby mudpuppy it was a light brown with dark black spots and the algae lookin gills were still a reddish color and i don’t know of any river or lake that indian trail parks stream enters i don’t know it could possibly enter a river or lake i honestly don’t know.

  5. avatar

    also i have a leopard gecko he is turining 2 years old this december and he is epicly awesome

    • avatar

      Hello Kayla

      Thanks…good luck with your gecko. I’ve found that pet stores sometimes do not provide owners with accurate info concerning diet. Please check out this article on Feeding Leopard Geckos and write back if you have any questions.

      Good luck, enjoy and please keep me posted.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  6. avatar

    Also i have a question about feeding geckos with wild insects. My area doesn’t get grasshoppers,caterpillars,or katydids(sometimes you can find them but not all the time). Would it be safe to feed him japanese beetles because they bite or not?

  7. avatar

    hey i went fishing the other day with my husband, about a week ago, so near the end of February, and he caught a mudpuppy on his fishing pole. well, thing is, i read that mudpuppies are declining in their natural habitat, and they are more northern creatures. we caught the creature in Beaver Lake in Rogers, AR. i cant find anywhere where they are natural creatures in the lake online. so is this important to someone? or some study? should i call the university and ask them? cause if they are migrating south, then… what could that mean? animals usually know more about whats going on in the world than we do. thanks for reading. – jazmyn,

    • avatar


      Thanks for the interesting post..I’ve been reading about mudpuppies being caught with fishing poles since childhood, but you are only the second person I know of who has actually witnessed this! They are quite cold-tolerant; even here in NY, they remain active below the ice throughout winter.

      There are 5-6 related species in the North America, ranging from s. Canada to Georgia and Louisiana. They do occur in Arkansas, but it would be a good idea to alert the state wildlife agency, as they are declining in most habitats. Several states protect them,..your info would be useful should Arkansas be considering this. Arkansas has a rich diversity of salamanders…you can see photos and read a bit about the 28-30 native species here.

      Please let me know if you need help in locating the appropriate state agency, Best regards, Frank

  8. avatar

    Hello wish I could send pics. At camp this past weekend we came across. A creek full of poss mudpuppies. As the kids usually kill/tourter our creek critters we decided to grab as many as we could. They are about the size of a pinky finger in length side r not red or plume looking but… my friends parents have a crazy pond n garden wherewe took most of them . We all kept five lil dudes. Can I feed them ants n newt food as babies I have poot glass pebbles fish plant for now. Any help would be great. Oh btw they r light tan brown with spots that r dark thanks Angela W

    • avatar

      Hi Angela,

      They can be difficult to distinguish from tiger salamander larvae, but check photos…mudpuppies heads are flatter; some tiger sal larvae reach 12 inches, so differentiating on size takes time. Use a razor blade (straight blade, as sold in hardware stores) to chop earthworms in tiny peices; blackworms ideal if avail at pet store. many will take dry foods in time, reptomin, etc., but usually not early-on, worth trying, be sure it sinks. Young guppies also a good food, perhaps allow to breed in pond..watch if gills start to shrink, as transforming animals drown easily, and will leave the pond when able. Water quality, filtration impt. Pl keep me posted, let me know if you nedd more info, best, Frank

  9. avatar

    I live in Ontario, these were found in a small town of st Charles an hour north of sudbury. everyone is convinced they are mudpuppies. With all the research I have done I am well aware they may not be. At what point can you start to see what species your dealing with
    they don’t seem to be able to eat worms yet mouths still to small? aw

  10. avatar

    Hello thx for all your help. I was also wondering at this size can I keep them in a betta tank together plenty of room I think nut its only a 2 or 3 gallon tank. Thx again Frank. Is it correct that actual mudpuppies have four hind toes. Mine have three some of them have much bigger (gills) do I buy one worm at s time n how often fo I feed em thid small thx:)

    • avatar

      I forgot about the toe count, thanks…mudpuppies have 4 toes on front and hind feet; tiger salamanders and relatives have 5 toes on each hind foot; but toes are often lost to tankmates (they also eat one another’s gills, and smaller individuals); I don’t know of any that have 3 toes, but have not checked; Peterson field guides (eastern USA or, if available, Canada) are very useful.

      Use as large a tank as possible…filtered, or one that can be easily dumped and cleaned. Can feed very other day or so…strict sched not necessary, they will adjust metabolism/growth, but cannibalism increases when they are hungry (no surprises there, I guess!). Best, Frank

  11. avatar

    Hello Frank Thanks for all your help its been great. So I have 4 mudpuppies n 1 tiger 🙂 mixing them as babies Is ok? The two species are seperated but the mudpuppies are they ok together as babies and for how long ?? Can I have a bottom feeder in the tank? What plantwould you suggest if any. Thx again AngelaW

    • avatar

      Hi Angela,

      All can be mixed but they will sometimes bite off gills/toes. They grow back, but infections can set in (but not common); also, they may try to swallow tankmates up to 3/4 their own size. Most aquatic plants need lots of light, and may be uprooted.. pothos (a house plant) floating on top may be better, grows fine in water. Best to avoid fish…most will clip gills; weatherfish are ok, can take very cold water, but may compete for food; corydoras cats not aggressive, but have spines and will kill larvae if swallowed. Remember too that ammonia levels will increase with each additional larvae or fish that is added;onitor carefully, enjoy, Frank

  12. avatar

    Hey Frank
    Again I can’t thank you enough for all your insight:)
    I did not get a filter as my brother in law had a problem with them dying getting in the filter I have a lively bunch my brother’s in law’s are not as lively or hungry as mine. I have been adding a 1/4 vup or so of cold filtered Brita water each day as I do have five lil guys my tank is 2.5gallon and I assume for now this is fine as they are no longer than a pinky finger if that I fed them cutup fresh bait worms One will eat any time of day n quick:) the others eat at night and only when not disturbed. The one that eats anytime is yhe only one with plumes that extend altho the other ones rarely had any anyways. I have a smooth brdge a fake log hut a cpl decorations and a cutup of yhe fake grass pads you can buy. They seem to love it:)
    I wouldn’t even know where to start looking at filters or what style if needed esp with such a small tank
    I also wondered if you knew what the size difference would be between two weeks old and one year
    Thanks for taking the time in helping me learn about these cool lil dudes
    I really appreciate all your help and how fast you are has been amazing

    • avatar

      Hi Angela,

      Be sure to remove water each day as well, or else the ammonia is remaining within; you’ll need to move them to a 10 gallon aquarium in time, then to a larger one if you plan on keeping all. A small submersible filter will work…just direct water outflow so that it does not disturb their swimming…or use a corner filter and small air pump.

      AS they grow, you can also move them into inexpensive plastic storage boxes…these can easily be dumped/cleaned often, can split them into several if easier. De-Chlor drops are fine, not sure if the water filter you mentioned removes chlorine and chloramines, main concerns for amphibs.

      Size difficult to predict..influenced by diet, temperature, health, etc.

      Best, Frank

  13. avatar

    My daughter put 2 Mudpuppies in a small pond in our yard thinking they were frog tadpoles. I am afraid they will not survive the winter in this small amount of frozen water. Where would be a good place to relocate them? She found them with others in a flooded field near our Wisconsin home. Thanks. Madi

    • avatar

      Hi Madi,

      If they were found in a flooded field they are more likely to be the larvae of a salamander other than a mudpuppy (mudpuppies do not frequent these habitats, generally live in larger, permanent water bodies). All aquatic salamander larvae resemble mudpuppies until they transform. Assuming your pond retains water until fall, and there is adequate food, they should transform and move off into suitable habitat I forest edge, overgrown field, depending on species). You can see drawings of Minnesota’s native salamander larvae here (species overlap with Wisconsin)..ID by drawing alone is difficult, but you may get some idea from the descriptions, sizes, etc.

      Please let me know what you find out, and if you need more info, best, Frank

  14. avatar

    hey Frank… I caught a mud puppy in the Lemonweir River in New Lisbon, WI. It’s approx. 5 inches roughly. I have it in a 10 gallon tank with a filter, Lives plants, and have been trying to feed it worms… I have never been able to keep them with any success. I want to keep it and I am very interested in learning more about them so I can keep it alive. Any pointers that you can help me with would be very much appreciated.

    Thank You

    • avatar

      Hi John,

      Populations vary as to difficulty in keeping..those from sluggish warm water habitats generally easiest. In WI, may be adapted to cold water (take temps of river); room temps may be too warm. Check rivers pH as well, as isolated populations can be adapted to a narrow pH range. let me know what you find, maybe we can adjust pH. Some populations prefer crayfish, but most take earthworms, small fish in time. Larger tank preferable, even for small individuals. Here’s Part II of article, in case you did not see. If you have lights for plants, be sure there’s plenty of dark areas (heavy plant cover, cave in which to hide, ) as they do not do well in brightly lit tanks, at least until habituated, Let me know what you learn re river’s water, enjoy, Frank

  15. avatar

    Well I have a mudd puppie an she is in a 30-40 gal. Tank somthing like that….I had a male but like after awile he had gotten skinny an passed well threw his days of I thought was development in there change cause as I read about them I read so much stuff not the same an never correct well before his changes like him an my female was acting an mushy always with each other playing an happy as can be well to me I thought they was starting to get ready to mate so my husband an I go to pet co
    Get bigger aquarium an other stuff fish an we get home set It up get temp right cause we keep it cold for them as they grew up from their caretaker whom raises them well get it all done switch everything well my female starts forming a belly it gets bigger an bigger as he got smaller an smaller well he never once started to lose his gills nothing just was getting skinny an his tail part was slimming down like a week in a half he did that well I never came across nothing helpful so he passes now my female I think she layed eggs some where but not to sure an dont wanna disturb the water but now she is starting to lose her gill/finger things still eating active both was but shes losing her gills an starting to slim in her tail a lil too….but I noticed with my male threw his days thqt he started to like use his legs more walk more would rarely come up to the top my female thou she seems normal now but some say they not suppose to lose their gill same say they do I read some live just in moist area some rather the deep…then I reax that during changes they have to have land but it has to stay really moist witch is it dont matter to me its just I dont wanna loose another one done lost my male an my albino catfish that just nested to I think if not well ik my carfish an salamander didnt go on a diet over night an lost an each of few oz. Are how ever yall weight them but they didnt lose a big round tummy they had few a few weeks before over night an if so well good for them if not cant wait to have them simming around my aquarium(s) if so but id really like some real truthful answer for her cause I canf help her ic I dont know whats goin on do I have to mover her to my other aquarium to land an water are what please please help asap
    Thanks in advance greatly appreciated

    • avatar

      Hello Heidi,

      It would be best if you returned to the store and asked what type of salamander you have…muduppies (Necturus macularius) do not lose their gills and remain as aquatic creatures throughout life; they are rarely sold in typical pet stores. Mexican Axolotls (Ambystoma mexicanum) are commonly sold…they retain their gills throughout life also, and do not leave the water. Salamander larvae of many types resemble both, but are much smaller…except for the tiger salamander; they too are rarely sold in stores, however.

      If an axolotl or mudpuppy loses its gills, high ammonia levels in the water are often to blame…test your water with an ammonia test kit and let me know if you need more info; strong filtration and frequent partial water changes are important to both species.

      Best, Frank

  16. avatar

    Idk what kind all I know is they call it the baby dinosaur I got it out the mall from a guy that was selling them breeds them he gave me his card but I misplaced it are it got ate by my dog who thinks she has to eat my stuff aint no telling but its gone an they are the gray ones with black dots mine is like 6-7 inches at the time shes very active akways been loves to be held but I stop playing with her cause we put them in bigger aquarium with exotic fish an as all would my fish got eatin except like 4 r 5 I have two lil turtles in there also but they been in since the other aquarium but we also have well water maybe the change in that cause in first aquarium we had filtered gallon water but if so that why so far apart an why so long for one an not the other an the guy is not located around us are close by our pet stores all heard of them but dont fool with them are never seen them but imma bring it to LC an have petco are pet smart test it cause being I got my exotic fish there they test it for me as soon as I get them might not post right away but when I get around to having the time to post are even get on the web I will do so an again thanks for the advice

    • avatar

      Hello Heidi,

      Salamanders never work out with fish or turtles; turtles are very hard on water quality.

      There’s some good info on the net, and you can always post here, but I’d suggest that you read some good basic books on aquarium keeping, turtle care and salamander care. The Barron’s series are excellent. I wrote Newts and Salamanders for that company, they have a very good book on turtle care and several on basic aquarium/fish care. Best, Frank

  17. avatar

    Hello Frank,
    I was catching frogs in a pond and happened to notice that there was a very tiny mudpuppy on the bottom of the container. The mudpuppy is smaller than a pinkie at the moment. It is maybe 3inches in length. I dont want to let the little guy go so can you help me on what to feed this little guy? And at how small the little guy is do you think you would be able to give me an age range? Please help! Thanks – Brooke

    • avatar

      Hello Brooke,

      Mudpuppies, especially very small ones, are not easy to find..very secretive and rarely caught by accident in nets. More likely it is the larvae of another species of salamander…all aquatic larvae resemble small mudpuppies. very hard to ID at this stage, but if you send a measurement and location of capture I may be able to narrow it down. Provide easy access from water if it has 4 legs, as it may transform soon..frogs will try to swallow young salamanders, so keep apart. Most take live food only…blackworms, chopped earthworms, guppies, but some may be induced to take frozen bloodworms, pellets (rarely). Best, Frank

  18. avatar

    Thanks for the help. I was located at Jefferson NY in a pond. After some research i am almost poitive that it might be a mudpuppy. And i was in very shallow water. I caught it unexpectedly and i was actually very exicted to see what i had caught. He has ths little red gillls coming from the side of both sides of his head. Thats how i maybe kinda figured it was a baby mudpuppy. Thanks! – Brooke

    • avatar

      Hi Brooke,

      There’s many possibilities…spotted salamander, marbled, Jefferson’s etc..all have small red gills before transforming into adult stage. Mudpuppies in NY tend to live in rivers and streams as opposed to ponds…difficult to be sure, but best to provide a way out of the water, in case. You’ll see the gills receding if it is a larval salamander, best, frank

  19. avatar

    Okay. Thank you lots! Should i still feed him the worms? If so when should i feel him? (Morning, afternoon, night)

  20. avatar

    Also if you have an email i can send you a pic to see if maybe you can identify him.

  21. avatar

    I have found several salamanders here in Tennessee lately via net found in a small pond. Other creatures here include toads, toad tadpoles, flat head minors. These salamanders have been brown with a flattened tail (extremely similar to larger toad tadpole tails), yellow bellies, approx 3 inches long, have spots starting Rhonda the hea on down the body. First, I am curious to know if these would be fully aquatic and how to tell. More importantly, under a rock , by extreme accident, we found a smaller (about 2inch long) salamander in our creek. It died which I now know was due to the temp change in the water so rapidly place into a tank. This one had the red outter gills. Then we found 2 more the same way, under rocks. Via net. Creek. I’ve read a ton and looked at pictures and it seems that it looks identical to mud puppies. Was curious because it seems that they are rare in TN. Please help me to ID these .

    • avatar

      Hi Kristin…you’re in a good state for salamanders – TN is one of the diversity hotspots for them!

      Most but not all natives begin life as aquatic larvae with external gills; it is very difficult to ID larvae by external appearance alone. Mudpuppies tend to inhabit rivers, streams more than small creeks, so you may have come across the larvae of another species..young mudpuppies ae difficult to find, but it’s always a possibility as well. Larvae do tend to be very fragile as well- more so, for most species, than mudpuppies.

      Please see this site for photos of TN’s native salamanders…it may be difficult to ID the others you have found also, as many are similar. A good field guide (i.e. the Peterson or Audubon guides) will be much more helpful in identifying the species you may see…many are in trouble, and little studied, so I’m glad to see your interest. let me know if you need more info, or a reference to other books. Please keep me posted, enjoy, frank

  22. avatar
    Anthony Sylvester

    Frank. I fish on the black river located in black river falls wisconsin daily after i come home from work. I have caught almost as many mudpups up here as ive caught sturgeon so atleast two a week. I usually throw them back unless they swallow my hook then ill use them for bait. I do not see how they are rare or uncommon when i come across them so frequently.

    • avatar

      Hello Anthony,

      There are several subspecies and species, and populations vary widely throughout the range; like all amphibians, they are extremely sensitive to water quality, pollution, etc., and are in decline or absent from many formerly-occupied habitats, best regards, frank

  23. avatar

    Hey, I recently just go two juvenile mud puppies, I’ve tried feeding them some basic stuff like bloodworms be they just swim away. Are there any other varieties of food that’s big enough for them and how do I make them eat?

About Frank Indiviglio

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Being born with a deep interest in animals might seem unfortunate for a native Bronxite , but my family encouraged my interest and the menagerie that sprung from it. Jobs with pet stores and importers had me caring for a fantastic assortment of reptiles and amphibians. After a detour as a lawyer, I was hired as a Bronx Zoo animal keeper and was soon caring for gharials, goliath frogs, king cobras and everything in-between. Research has taken me in pursuit of anacondas, Orinoco crocodiles and other animals in locales ranging from Venezuela’s llanos to Tortuguero’s beaches. Now, after 20+ years with the Bronx Zoo, I am a consultant for several zoos and museums. I have spent time in Japan, and often exchange ideas with zoologists there. I have written books on salamanders, geckos and other “herps”, discussed reptile-keeping on television and presented papers at conferences. A Master’s Degree in biology has led to teaching opportunities. My work puts me in contact with thousands of hobbyists keeping an array of pets. Without fail, I have learned much from them and hope, dear readers, that you will be generous in sharing your thoughts on this blog and web site. For a complete biography of my experience click here.
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