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Monday, June 20, 2011

MICHAEL NEWTON: Not-So-Weird Wisconsin?

In Unnatural Phenomena, his exhaustive collection of Fortean clips from 19th-century American newspapers, Jerome Clark produced the following item from the Janesville Free Press, reprinted in the Alton (Illinois) Weekly Courier of 18 March 1853. The date of the original remains unclear. It read:

A singular reptile or fish was caught here a few days since, and is now in a glass jar before us. It has a skin like a catfish, a head and tail like an eel. The gills are on the outside of the neck, and it has four legs like a lizard, terminating in a miniature human hand. It is about fifteen inches long and was taken with a hook. No one here has ever seen a creature like it, though [naturalist Zadock] Thompson in his book of Vermont, describes a similar one, caught at Colchester, near Burlington.

A third similar specimen appeared in July 1902, when the Milwaukee Journal (10 July) reported that William Wuertzberger, from Racine, had “dipped a curious fish” from Lake Michigan. As described in the article:

It has the head of a lizard and body of a fish, is fourteen inches long and two-and-a-half inches in diameter, of grayish color and with black spots. It has four feet, resembling those of a lizard, but much smaller and the tail of an eel. When placed in the water with other fish it emitted pills which dissolved and killed the other fish. There were no eyes. There are two small ears, an eighth of an inch in diameter, but when the fish became angry would extend over an inch.

In retrospect, it is difficult to understand why these creatures confused and astounded local residents—much less journalists with reference works at their fingertips. Both animals described sound very much like common mudpuppies or waterdogs, formally described in 1818 as Necturus maculosus. This salamander species inhabits most of the American Midwest, including Wisconsin, and claims a record length exceeding nineteen inches. Their range of coloration matches the descriptions, and mudpuppies retain their fanlike gills into adulthood, simulating external ears.

Only the lethal “pills” remain mysterious—unless we take them to be normal amphibian eggs released into water en masse. Female mudpuppies lay an average of sixty eggs per spawning, but may produce up to 190. That said, their reported dissolution in water and deadly effect on “other fish”—whatever those were—is unexplained.


1. A common mudpuppy or waterdog.
2. Close-up of the mudpuppy’s ear-like gills.
3. Salamander eggs.
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1 comment:

Arcturus said...

As a kid in Wisconsin we used to call mud puppies "4 wheel drives" - for obvious reasons when you pulled them from the water.