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Chasing Hellbenders

Posted on Jul 17, 2015

It’s a beautiful sunny morning when I join biologists, students and techs from the University of Buffalo and NYS DEC to evaluate a stream for a particularly unique species of amphibian. We dawn our waders and lug our equipment to the water’s edge. The water is still relatively cool and is rolling over the rocky bottom of the river in which we enter. With nets in hand and special poles used to lift large rocks, we begin to evaluate the stream bottom for suitable places a secretive salamander might live. As we find a massive rock along the river floor, we surround it as it is lifted, ready for anything that might swim out. As we lift our nets out of the water, mine reveals a prehistoric creature not many have the opportunity to see. Touching its smooth, river soaked skin and attempting to hold on while it slips through my fingers within the net, an Eastern Hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis) puts me in awe of not only its size and prehistoric appearance, but also of its mild demeanor and innocence.

Measuring the Hellbender

Taking a closer look at the overall body condition of the hellbender.

These gentle giants, reaching upwards of two feet in length, are discreet residents of many streams and rivers within New York State and beyond. Although they live relatively quiet and peaceable lives, they are silently disappearing throughout much of their range. Simply put, hellbenders require clean waters and sadly, clean waters are becoming harder and harder to find. While many streams and rivers may appear to be functional, they are polluted by a number of chemicals, litter or disease or have a great deal of sedimentation due to increased erosion. Hellbenders are susceptible to these foreign substances and get crowed out of their hiding spots as silt builds up under the rocks.

Measuring the Hellbender (2)

Taking the hellbender’s measurements.

Once our hellbender was in hand, we worked quickly to process it and get it back into its home in order to keep stress levels low. With gloved hands we took its weight and lengths, looked at its overall body condition and carefully swabbed its body to collect any pathogens present on the skin. The swabs were placed in individual tubes and packed away to soon be tested for Chytrid, a fungal infection that causes hardening of an amphibian’s permeable skin and ultimately leads to their death. Across the world amphibians are being impacted by chytrid and our local hellbenders are no exception. Hellbenders have been increasingly declining as their habitat is becoming more scarce and the fungus is spreading throughout the country.

Me holding my hellbender

Only a face a mother could love? I’d say no! These creatures are beautiful and we can learn so much from them and gauge the health of the surrounding habitat simply by their presence.

While I have had the opportunity to meet one of these amazing creatures in the wild, other’s chances may get slimmer as time goes on unless we make some changes. The biggest thing we can do to help the hellbender is to simply learn more about them and understand that they aren’t an evil creature lurking in the rivers and streams, rather they are a wild animal that is very vulnerable. Tomorrow night anyone interested in educating themselves about hellbenders is welcome to join us here at RTPI at 7pm. Robin Foster, a PhD candidate at the University of Buffalo will be speaking about her work with this elusive salamander and will have many stories to share about her experiences with these gentle giants.

Elyse Henshaw
Conservation Technician