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
Archive for Virginia
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
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…
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
…though I guess I should really call it a “stream season”, since hellbenders don’t live in fields.
I left early this morning to drive down to my hellbender field site in southern Virginia (locations are not disclosed to protect the populations from poaching). On the way I stopped at the Zoo to analyze some white blood cells that I had collected last Wednesday from our hellbenders in Reptile Discovery Center. The cells are part of a study to investigate the effects of climate change on disease resistance in hellbenders. Because the cells are alive, I have to analyze them following a strict schedule. In this case it coincided with the day I was leaving on a week-long trip to survey hellbenders in the wild. Balancing our Zoo-based studies with a busy field season is going to be a challenge! Read more