Archive for Science Blog

A Clever Way to Find a Rare Salamander

In addition to being fast, slippery and scarce, the elusive hellbender blends in beautifully with its habitat.

In addition to being fast, slippery and scarce, the hellbender blends in perfectly with its habitat.

How do you find a rare animal that lives in swift-flowing streams, hides under enormous rocks, and swims faster than Michael Phelps? The critter we’re looking for is the hellbender (aka snot otter, grampus, devil dog, the list goes on…). The traditional way find these prehistoric-looking salamanders involves several steps: 1) recruit assistants with fast reflexes, 2) wait while everyone squeezes into wetsuits, 3) work your butts off lifting rocks, 4) blindly feel around for something squishy, and 5) hope you get lucky. But now there’s an easier way to do this, and it’s inspired by forensic science. Read more

Fracking in the dark: biological fall out of shale-gas production still largely unknown

With unconventional gas production projected to surge during the next 30 years, determining and minimizing the industry’s effects on nature and wildlife must become a top priority. Image of Wyoming’s Jonah Field, an extreme example of the impacts of fracking operations on landscapes. (Photo courtesy of Ecoflight.)

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.

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Diving for hellbenders

Biologists from Smithsonian's National Zoo and Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries gear up for a hellbender dive.

Biologists from Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries gear up for a hellbender dive.

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

Muddin’ for miniature mud dogs

An itty-bitty Georgia bender.

An itty-bitty Georgia bender.

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…

Matt finds special meaning in the eyes of a mud dog.

Matt finds special meaning in the eyes of a mud dog.

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.

Thomas, Matt and Doug look for hellbenders as the endless rain makes the water more and more cloudy.

Thomas, Matt and Doug continue their determined search as the endless rain clouds the water.

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.

Emma, an intern at the National Zoo, gets her first Georgia muddn' experience.

Emma, an intern at the National Zoo, gets her first southern muddn’ experience.

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.

The rain got the best of us, but I give Thomas a high-five for his effort.

The rain got the best of us, but I give Thomas a high-five for his effort.

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.

Hellbendering in Tennessee

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.

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A Texas-Sized Hellbender

Team Hellbender: Dan the Stream Man, JD the Noodler, Hellbender Wrangler Kim, and Nurse Veronica

Team Hellbender: Dan the Stream Man, JD the Noodler, Hellbender Wrangler Kim, and Nurse Veronica

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.

Dace, shiners, and river chub brighten up the stream bed.

Dace, shiners, and river chub brighten up the stream bed.

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.

James the Texan meets his very first hellbender.

James the Texan meets his very first hellbender.

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.

That Critter Don’t Get Out Much.

Veronica poses with a healthy-looking hellbender.

Veronica catches her first hellbender in the wild!

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.

Turns out the hellbenders aren’t the only thing that’s slippery in this stream…

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…

Footless Hellbenders

This hellbender was missing 3 of its feet. (Photo credit: Lisa Ware)

This hellbender was missing 3 of its feet. (Photo credit: Lisa Ware)

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…

Spying on Hellbenders

Emma doesn't miss anything.

Emma doesn’t miss a thing.

I’ve spent endless hours watching the National Zoo’s slimy, brown hellbenders and have finally figured out what these salamanders do all night. My name is Emma, and I’m a high school senior (soon to be graduate) interning at the zoo’s Appalachian Salamander Lab in the Reptile Discovery Center.  I come in early in the morning, before the zoo is open, to observe hellbenders in the dark – when they are most active. But before I tell you what I discovered, let me introduce you to my amphibian acquaintances. Hellbenders are a type of salamander that live in the Appalachian mountains, from Virginia to New York, and in the Ozarks (Arkansas and Missouri). Salamanders are amphibians, like frogs and caecilians. Read more

An epic discovery – Part 2

Students from Cornerstone Christian Academy see their first hellbender in the wild!

Students from Cornerstone Christian Academy see their first hellbender in the wild!

continued from Part 1

I plunged my head into the frigid, rushing water to try and get a peek at the hellbender, wondering if I might have been fooled by a fish. But it was right there, staring back at me from beneath the edge of the boulder. We would have one chance to catch this hellbender, because it would almost certainly retreat deep under the boulder as soon as it got spooked. Read more

An epic discovery – Part 1

Kim fights the current in search of a hellbender.

Kim fights the current in search of a hellbender.

It was our last day of surveying for hellbender salamanders in southwest Virginia, and as we approached the stream, my heart sank. There was no question about it – the stream was raging. The last few weeks of rain had flooded this watershed, and it would be incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to catch a slippery salamander under 3 feet of rushing water. On top of it, a group of high school students were meeting up with us to see their first hellbender in the wild. I was determined to make it a memorable experience for them… come hellbender or high water.  Read more

Fish n’ Microchips

A recent hellbender meal, believed to be a stoneroller fish (Campostoma anomalum)

A recent hellbender meal, believed to be a stoneroller fish (Campostoma anomalum).

Imagine swallowing a 25-pound, 5-foot long fish in a single gulp… and then going to the doctor for a physical exam. Well that’s more or less what a hellbender salamander experienced during one of our stream surveys this week. Read more


Clinostomum complanatum

Clinostomum complanatum, also known as the yellow grub.

With the help of the National Zoo’s pathologist, Dr. Tim Walsh, we solved the mystery of the yellow bump-covered darters! Official diagnosis? Grubs. That’s right, the good ol’ encysting fluke worm also known as the yellow grub (Clinostomum). This is a common parasite that starts its life in a snail, ends up in a bird, and in the middle lives in freshwater fish like darters, dace, shiners, and chubs. The worms hatch in the water, but have only hours to find a snail host or else face certain death. Once the larval grubs leave the snail, they enter the fish and set up shop in its flesh, making a swollen lump called a metacercaria. Are they harmful to fish? Sometimes. Severe infestations can be fatal. But then again many fish can get by just fine with a more modest number of the yellow, wriggling parasites. Are they harmful to humans? Well… It seems like the jury is still out on that one. Traditional thinking seems to be that, like other parasites of birds, this grub won’t infect people. But in 1995 a Korean man went to the doctor with pain and a “foreign body sensation” in his throat. Yup, you guessed it – he got grubs. Since then many other infections in humans have been reported, always involving individuals who eat uncooked fish. So it’s always a good idea to cook fish thoroughly.

For the time being we’ll keep an eye on this grub-infested fish population. It will be interesting to see how they cope with the parasites. Why did these grubs suddenly appear in a new fish population? We may never know, but we’re still looking for clues.

You can find out more information about yellow grubs and other fish parasites at the PA Fish & Boat Commission website.

Measuring salamander breaths

Eric peers at a redbacked salamander while Andrew records how much oxygen it breathes.

Imagine that the temperature inside your body, instead of being a toasty 98.6°F, was simply determined by the temperature of the air outside. All of the processes taking place in your body would be determined by the weather – your breathing, your heart rate, your appetite and your ability to fight off a cold. If you were a child, the weather would determine how fast you grow up. If you were an adult, the weather would dictate your ability to conceive a child.

Imagine all this, and then imagine that the weather was changing. Read more

Fish with yellow bumps… everywhere!!!

A black-nose dace with large yellow bumps on its belly.

In our last post we shared a video about hellbenders as “water detectors”. Other species (especially mussels and macroinvertebrates) can also help us detect problems in freshwater habitats. So when our science team is surveying for hellbenders in the wild, we make note of anything unusual we find. Last summer, we were wrangling hellbenders with Eric Chapman in western Pennsylvania, when he caught a fantail darter in his net. Darters are pretty common little fish (though some species are endangered) but there was something very unusual about this one – its belly was covered with yellow bumps! Eric had been surveying these streams since 2005 and had never seen anything like it. Read more

Growing putrid bacteria to help hellbenders

A. hydrophila

How do festering plates of bacteria contribute to hellbender conservation? At the National Zoo, we’re growing bacteria to understand how climate change will effect hellbender health. Read more

It’s raining hellbenders

Barbara and Brian swab a hellbender’s skin to look for ‘good bacteria’ that can help fight disease.

We met up with Eric’s team early this morning excited to wrangle some hellbenders.  Barbara and Brian had never seen one in the wild, and we were going to a great site.  Eric expected to find 15-20 benders today!  But after the first hour of intense searching with no success, I was starting to wonder.  It would pretty much have to start raining hellbenders for us to meet Eric’s goal…

Read more

Bringing out the big guns

Time for another trip to Pennsylvania!  This time I have two people from the zoo joining me: Barbara Watkins (an animal keeper at the Reptile Discovery Center) and Brian Gratwicke (amphibian biologist, photographer extraordinaire, and my supervisor).  Eric was originally going to survey the same creek we were at last time, but when he heard that my boss was coming, he rearranged their schedule and took us to the best hellbender site in the region.  Woo-hoo!  Yup, Eric’s pretty much the best research collaborator you could ask for.

“Are you from Jersey Shore?”

Lauren and I spent the night at a campground just around the corner from the site.  On our way into town, we stopped at a small grocery store and ended up making friends with the profusely muscular and impossibly tanned cashier clerk (Lauren opened the conversation with “Are you from Jersey Shore?” which I think he appreciated).  Two of his friends were hanging out, and one of them, a nursing student, was very interested in the health component of our hellbender study.  She’d never heard of a hellbender, and when I pulled out our life-sized model she was completely floored.  How could a 2 foot long salamander that belongs in a “Jurassic Park” prequel be living in the streams of central Pennsylvania?!?   Read more

On the road again

This time it’s just me and Lauren, and we’re heading up to central Pennsylvania. Tomorrow morning we’ll meet up with Eric Chapman from Western PA Conservancy, who is leading the state’s hellbender surveys. I’ve never met Eric, but have heard that he’s a lot of fun to work with, so I’m really looking forward to this trip. It’ll be a quick one – we’re surveying all day tomorrow and driving back in the evening. After talking with Eric yesterday, I’m really eager to get some samples from this population. The surrounding area has been heavily impacted by Marcellus shale drilling (a.k.a. hydraulic fracturing or “hydrofracking”), and Eric has been finding fewer and fewer hellbenders at this site. Assessing the health of the last remaining hellbenders in this creek will be interesting – and hopefully useful from a management standpoint. We’ve got all our gear packed up (including a back-up blood centrifuge!) and are ready to go.

Down by the fishin’ hole

We woke up this morning refreshed and ready for a new day of hellbendering. I was hoping to catch at least 3 more animals in order to get enough samples for my study. Lauren and Brad had to leave yesterday afternoon to return to work, so the group was down to JD, Jeff, Dan and I. We missed Lauren’s animal handling expertise and Brad’s technical skills, but we managed to remain a pretty efficient crew. We caught our quota of 3 hellbenders before lunchtime, so we decided to try a brand new site that had never been surveyed for hellbenders. Read more

Centripetal disaster – Part 2


 While I was busy unplugging and re-plugging the centrifuge, Jeff decided to actually do something constructive and called the manufacturer. He determined that the problem was related to a bad connection and could (theoretically) be fixed with a bit of soldering. So began our quest for a soldering iron. We found a guy on a tractor, who sent us to a guy at a nearby fish hatchery, who didn’t have an iron but thought he could help us fix it with some tools he had on hand. Standing there helpless, I felt like I was watching a life-or-death surgery. Read more

Centripetal disaster – Part 1

I don’t even know where to begin. Today the crew was bumped, bruised, drenched, pooped on, stung, pinched, panicked, parched, sweaty, and driven to extreme mental frustration. Read more

Snorkeling in the dark

Well, last night’s hellbender survey was a total bust. Read more

The slime starts flowing…

What a day! The first animal we caught was a juvenile, probably just 3 years old. This was really exciting because it’s getting pretty hard to find juvenile hellbenders in the wild (at least in most parts of their range). Scientists think that the lack of juveniles could mean that populations aren’t reproducing successfully, which would be bad news for the future of wild hellbenders. Read more