New Amphibians exhibit at Shedd Aquarium highlights conservation

By Elise Steinberger

Standing in the shower, watching soap suds disappear down the drain as you shampoo your hair, your mind wanders through your to-do list. You’re probably not giving those shampoo bubbles at your feet a second thought. The mudpuppy wishes you would.

This Great Lakes salamander is just one of the many amphibian species affected by what goes down our drains. Amphibians, a new exhibit at the Shedd Aquarium, examines the slippery creatures’ lives.

“I really would love people to walk away with the message that they can do something at home every day to help out these animals,” said Malissa Smith, a Shedd aquarist.

The exhibit aims to raise awareness of how people’s daily habits affect amphibians in the wild. Experts at the aquarium said involving the public in conservation efforts is key to protecting amphibians’ future.

“Hopefully we can inspire them to make a difference for the amphibians that share their own back yards and the amphibians’ plight worldwide,” said Eve Barrs, a Shedd aquarist.

The mudpuppy is not alone in its struggle as a threatened species. Forty-one percent of amphibian species are threatened by changes in the environment, according to Shedd researchers.

Evidence of climate change and pollution negatively affecting animal populations is nothing new. But unlike the polar bear – the poster child for climate change – amphibians have survived ice ages and mass extinctions since the time of the dinosaurs. This resilient group’s inability to cope with recent change raises red flags. You get nervous when an expert swimmer is unable to navigate rough currents.

Like other amphibians, the mudpuppy is directly affected by changes in water quality. As an amphibian, its uniquely permeable skin is sensitive to pollution and environmental changes. This characteristic makes many amphibians indicator species, or animals that alert scientist to changes in the environment.

The rapid change in the mudpuppy’s and other amphibians’ environments catch the animals off guard. Trying to contend with pesticides, herbicides and ozone depletion is proving to be too much for some species. Though once historical superstars of adaptation, this time, amphibians can’t adapt fast enough.

To address these and other issues, Charles Knapp, who holds a doctorate in wildlife ecology and is vice president of conservation and research, said the aquarium will continue to develop conservation research programs in conjunction with exhibits.

“We have a research portfolio that mirrors our collection,” Knapp said.

The Shedd Aquarium is inviting visitors to take a more active role in species conservation.

“I encourage people, if this perks your interest, to keep checking back with our website for citizen science opportunities,” Knapp said.

Visitors to the exhibit, which runs through 2017, can get acquainted with the mudpuppy and other salamanders, frogs, newts and caecilians while exploring how environmental change and human habits affect these animals.

So next time you watch a bubble disappear down the drain, remember its journey has just begun.

Photo at top: Mudpuppies are one of 40 species featured at the Shedd Aquarium’s new Amphibians exhibit running through 2017. (Shedd Aquarium/Courtesy)