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The Hellbender Search Continues

Posted on Jun 18, 2016

Sunshine is abundant, streams are low, clear and warm, and traps are smelly and baited…wait, what was that last part?! As the summer season is slated to officially begin this Monday, the field season is already underway and our hellbender search within Chautauqua County has begun once again.

As you may recall, last fall we worked with Robin Foster, PhD candidate at the University of Buffalo, to take eDNA samples from a number of potentially suitable sites to be tested. In case you aren’t familiar, eDNA is short for environmental DNA and is a reliable method in detecting even small amounts of DNA from the species in question. In our case, we collected water samples from each of our study sites and tested for the presence of hellbender DNA, which would likely come from shed skin cells moving through the water column. Much to our surprise, each of our samples came back positive for our elusive salamander’s DNA.

While waiting for the winter season to pass, we decided to plan live trapping efforts to increase our chances of physically catching these mysterious salamanders. So as a result of our planning, last week trucked over 30 traps out to our first study site to place in the stream bed for a series of three trapping nights.


Prior to the traps being placed, they each had to be decontaminated to ensure we wouldn’t be transporting any pathogens that could be harmful to hellbenders and other amphibians present in the stream. So our wonderful interns had the opportunity to help spray the traps down with a dilute bleach solution, scrub off debris and hose them down.

Each day we checked the traps, released any captives (which mostly ended up being crayfish) and rebaited the traps in hopes of luring in some hellbenders likely living nearby.


Each trap had to be carefully placed in the stream bottom and were tied to the shore in case waters rose due to a rain event. Our students learned a lot about hellbender biology from Robin and her students. They had the opportunity to check, rebait and place the traps throughout the course of our first trapping effort.


Traps were weighted with rocks to help keep them in place, and rocks were placed along the front edge of the trap, making a walkway for a hellbender to easily follow the scent of the bait fish to the opening of the trap.

Unfortunately this first attempt at trapping hellbenders was unsuccessful, but it is possible that the hellbenders may be in another nearby section of the stream. During the fall, when we took our eDNA sample, the hellbenders were likely on the move finding mates and nesting sites. It is possible the hellbenders had been passing through the section of stream we took our sample from and may be residing further upstream.

Although we didn’t catch any hellbenders, we did conduct rock lift surveys in a few areas of our study site and found large female mudpuppies that were guarding their nests.


Heather Zimba, one of our PWA crew leaders, aided in rock lifting as we searched for hellbenders.


For some of the students assisting in our trapping efforts, it was their first time seeing a mudpuppy, or at least one that size! This particular female was guarding a large nest and had a few scars on her. But she looked to be healthy and was happy to return to her nest after we took a quick look at her.


As you can see, this mudpuppy was quite large! She was quite slippery as we tried to carefully remove her from the net and place her back into the stream.

As the summer progresses, we intend to trap in two other sites as our search for the hellbender in Chautauqua County continues. As NYS DEC and other organizations and agencies work to better understand hellbender populations and restore them, we hope to contribute data to their ongoing efforts and work together to preserve this incredible species. Stay tuned for updates as our field work continues!

Elyse Henshaw
Conservation Technician