Hellbenders are on the air! Today I discussed the bizarre biology of giant salamanders on Herpin’ Time Radio. The show’s hosts, Justin Guyer and JD Hartzel, are die-hard herpers who promote responsible pet ownership and conservation of amphibians and reptiles. (Though for hellbenders, ‘responsible’ means leaving them in the wild.) Also on the show was Tim Healy from the National Audubon Society and Obed Hernández-Gomez from Purdue University. We talked about Tim’s reintroduction efforts, Obed’s ground-breaking research, and my new role as hellbender DNA detective. Listen to the full story here and learn more about hellbender conservation at Purdue University’s amazing hellbender website.
For salamanders and other freshwater animals in Appalachia, fracking could be the beginning of the end. Working with a group of 7 other conservation biologists, I tried to piece together exactly what we know about the dangers of fracking to wildlife. What we found will surprise you.
How do you find a 2 foot long salamander under 30 feet of water? You put on your SCUBA gear! We were in southwest Virginia this week, diving to the bottom of the New River in search of the elusive hellbender. Read more
What happens when mountains and moisture conspire to form a frost pocket in western Maryland? You get Finzel Swamp – an incredible ecosystem more reminiscent of Canada than southeast Appalachia! Biologists from The Nature Conservancy and Smithsonian’s National Zoo joined forces at Finzel Swamp to hunt for the striking, bright-yellow longtailed salamander. Hear the story from Lauren Landau on WAMU 88.5 Metro Connection this Friday, April 25 at 1 pm.
A new internship in amphibian health is being offered through the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (Front Royal, VA). The intern will assist in an ongoing study of Ranavirus infection in amphibians throughout Virginia, and the information gained from this research will help protect wild frogs and salamanders in this region.
Activities and learning opportunities
- Monitor signs of amphibian breeding at ponds throughout northern VA
- Learn to identify signs of Ranavirus infection in amphibians
- Collect and euthanize tadpoles for Ranavirus testing
- Participate in amphibian-related outreach and education efforts Read more
Few Americans realize that the United States is home to a GIANT, ancient salamander that has roamed the earth since the time of the dinosaurs. Scientists call this creature a hellbender, but it has many colorful names: devil dog, Allegheny alligator, old lasagna sides, hogfish, and (my favorite) snot otter. At nearly 2 ½ feet long, hellbenders are part of a family of giant salamanders (known as Cryptobranchids) that first appeared in central Asia over 160 million years ago. As you’ve surely guessed by the nicknames, it is not an attractive creature (at least not by Homo sapiens’ arbitrary standards). With a brown, flat, slimy, wrinkled body, hellbenders aren’t winning any beauty contests. But they ARE exquisitely bizarre and unlike anything else in the western hemisphere. Read more
Chaos erupted when ZOMBIES and MAD SCIENTISTS faced off Saturday night at the Haunted Salamander Lab. Check out more pictures below, and find out how we finally defeated the zombies!
This year’s Boo at the Zoo is off to a great start! From ancient pharaohs to NFL superstars, we had all sorts of creepy and clever visitors at the Haunted Salamander Lab. It was a great opportunity to see our nocturnal salamanders, and to pose with a life-sized hellbender model. Check out the incredible costumes in this slideshow.
Scientists and farmers teamed up this week to teach kids about all the critters that live on and around a farm – including salamanders! Kim and JD were at the annual Farm Field Day in Glade Spring, VA, where more than 300 local 6th graders learned about everything from corn to canebrake rattlesnakes. Read more
Where can you toast a microbrew AND help protect endangered salamanders? At the National Zoo’s Suds n’ Salamanders fundraiser! Last weekend this event raised over $7,000 for our new salamander exhibit (to open in 2014), thanks to the generous support of DC’s own Hellbender Brewery. The evening was filled with salamander-themed talks, a silent auction, and, of course, delicious suds. Read more
Call it a snot otter, grandpus, Allegheny alligator, ol’ lasagna sides, hogfish, devil dog, or mud dog. Yes, the hellbender is a creature of many names. Unfortunately, this assortment of colorful nicknames doesn’t suggest any redeeming qualities. Yet hellbenders are the most extraordinary salamander you’ll ever encounter in Appalachia. There’s nothing like it in the western hemisphere! In fact, its closest cousins are in China and Japan, and grow to be over 5 feet long. Fortunately we have the “miniature” version; hellbenders max out at about 2.5 feet. And “miniature” would turn out to be the theme of our recent trip to Georgia…
We made the 600 mile drive down to Chattahoochee National Forest, to the very southern limitsof the hellbender’s range. When I think of Georgia, I think of peaches, plantations and, most of all, hot summer days! Not exactly the type of place I’d expect to find a cold-loving, stream-dwelling salamander. Turns out, the streams in northern Georgia are spring-fed and a numb-your-face kind of cold.
We met up with Thomas Floyd, a biologist from Georgia Department of Natural Resources. He must have worked for the U.S. postal service in a former life, because neither rain, nor sleet, nor hail would stop his hellbender search. We carried on, in spite of the drizzle, and it paid off. Before the end of the day, we had turned up 7 hellbenders, most of which were itty bitty juveniles! These little hellbenders are getting harder and harder to find in many areas. That may be because hellbender streams are becoming filled with sediment (also called silt), which makes the stream cloudy and muddy. And although they’re sometimes called mud dogs, hellbenders can’t live in a muddy stream.
After our first stellar day of salamander surveys, we were eager to find more little snot otters. But little did we know what the weather had in store for us. We walked through a light drizzle as we left the hotel, and as we made our way up the mountain, the rain started to pick up. “No bid deal”, we thought, “we’re gonna get wet anyway”. But then the rain picked up a little more. And a little more. By the time we parked, the drizzle had turned into a torrential downpour. Shivering, I ran up to Thomas’ truck. As I expected, he was ready to get in the stream.
After all, it doesn’t rain under water.
My field crew and I abandoned our shiny, brand-new rental car, and scrambled into the back of Thomas’ pick-up truck. Mud flew out from under his tires as we bumped along, and I crossed my fingers that we would get through the flooded road ahead. We made it in one piece, and sloshed our way over to the edge of the stream bank. Thomas still had his game face on.
As we peered through the sheets of rain, our problem became apparent. The rain had turned this stream the color of chocolate milk, making it impossible to see any rocks, let alone a fast, slippery and well-camouflaged salamander. We had hoped that this stream would remain pretty clear, since it was surrounded by healthy forest rather than the tree-less, muddy stream banks that we find at some other hellbender sites. But the rain was coming too fast and hard, and we were outta luck. I gave Thomas a high-five for his effort, and we headed back down the mountain to try and get a warm meal before every restaurant in town lost power.
Our mobile salamander lab entered new territory this week! We teamed up with Dr. Michael Freake from Lee University to search for wild hellbenders in southern Tennessee.
We must have lifted 30 rocks this morning, and didn’t find a single hellbender. At one point, we saw something black and wiggly shoot out from under a rock. We spent the next 15 minutes chasing after it, thinking we found a baby hellbender, only to realize we had been duped by a regular old stream salamander. Shortly after that, we came upon a dazzling group of small, bright orange fish that we later identified as saffron shiners, Tennessee shiners, warpaint shiners, mountain redbelly dace, and river chub. The shiners were all crowded around the chub’s rock-covered nest, probably hoping for a tasty egg to slip out. After a half hour of shooting underwater fish pictures, we had started to lose our energy and focus. Things did not look good for team hellbender.
After stopping for lunch, we dragged ourselves back into the cold stream. I was feeling bored and soggy, and wondered if we were wasting our time at this site. I had only found two hellbenders here before – a little guy back in 2011 and an adult last month that was in pretty bad shape. It’s a popular fishing spot, and hellbenders tend to get caught and killed on fishing lines. My hopes of finding one were quickly fading.
Just as we resumed our search, we heard someone coming down the stream bank. It was Bill Harris, a bushy-bearded fisherman whose two passions in life are fly-tying and riding his bicycle along the Virginia Creeper Trail. Bill has a cute, curly-haired mutt that rides behind him in a covered trailer. Together they clean up the never-ending stream of litter that gets tossed alongside the Creeper. Today Bill was riding with his friend’s son, a 12-year old named James who was visiting for the summer from Texas. Bill had heard a lot about our project and was hoping to show James his first hellbender. The pressure was on.
Bill’s salamander senses must have been tingling, because 2 minutes after they showed up, I reached under a boulder and felt the squishy side of a hellbender! I called over JD – he’s our partner from Virginia Game and Inland Fisheries and the best hellbender “noodler” I know. He reached under the rock, and with a little twisting and splashing, wrestled (or “noodled”) out an ENORMOUS hellbender. This thing was 2 feet long and weighed almost 2 ½ pounds, about as heavy as a wooden baseball bat. It was the perfect first hellbender for a kid from Texas.
Imagine if you caught a fish in the river, threw it back, and then caught the exact same fish in the exact same spot a year later. Incredible, right? Well that’s how we felt today when we discovered the same hellbender salamander at the same rock we found it under during our last survey! Hellbenders are known to be pretty faithful to their rocks – once they find a good home, they like to stay there. After all, it can be tough to find a safe spot in a stream with strong currents, snapping turtles, hungry mink, and baited fishing hooks. As we saw in our last post, sometimes life in the stream can get pretty ugly.
A hermit lifestyle seems to be working well for this hellbender. It had all fingers and toes accounted for and was looking quite healthy. Tomorrow we’re heading back to a stream where we once found a footless hellbender. We’ll see if that population of hellbenders is as healthy as the animals that we found today.
And we should probably remember that salamanders aren’t the only ones that need to watch out for themselves…
During our last trip to southwest Virginia, we found something very troubling – a hellbender that had lost 3 of its feet. Biologists have found footless hellbenders in other states (particularly Arkansas), and believe that it’s caused by a bacteria or a fungus. Fortunately for us, it’s something that doesn’t affect humans. In this case, the hellbender appeared to be healing well, so the missing feet might have been the result of an injury rather than disease. Perhaps an unfortunate encounter with a snapping turtle? Today we’re leaving DC and heading back down to that stream in search of a footless hellbender. We’re hoping to find some clues to this mystery.
With me is Veronica Acosta, a veterinary technician better known as Nurse Hellbender. She’s equipped with medical supplies to take a small skin sample (also called a biopsy) from the site of a missing foot. We’re hoping that the sample can give us a clue about whether these hellbenders are experiencing disease or simply injuries. A biopsy is the same approach that a doctor would use to determine if a lump or mole was cancerous. This biopsy is just a little more… slimy.
So we’re off. We have 3 days to try and find a footless hellbender. Fingers crossed…