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. We made a plan. Warren would use a long wooden pole, called a peavey, as a lever to lift the edge of the rock a few inches, giving me enough room to get both hands under and grab the hellbender. Lisa had temporarily abandoned her camera and was holding a net at the edge of the boulder, ready to catch anything that might shoot out. It was go time.

Bethany swabs a hellbender to test it for disease.

Bethany swabs a hellbender to test it for disease.

I dove into the cold, clear water, and the sound of the raging current filled my ears. The rock slowly lifted, but only by an inch or two, and I realized there was no way I could grab the hellbender with both hands – I needed one hand to hang on! I attempted to “noodle” the hellbender out one-handed, but all I felt was the tip of its slimy tail. We decided to try again, this time abandoning the peavey (which was only getting in our way). I dove down, expecting the hellbender to be long gone… but I felt its slimy back! This time I got a better grip, and I thrashed around underwater trying to pull him out. Just as I felt him slip away, Warren pulled me out of the water – with all my splashing he thought I was drowning!

Ok, third try. As I cleared the water out of my snorkel, I saw that one of the parent chaperones was watching us intently from the bank. I wondered what he thought of this spectacle, and whether the high school students downstream were bored to death by now. I peered back into the water and was astounded to see the hellbender, with its entire head out from under the rock! Any reasonable salamander would be long gone by now, but this one was either overly curious or lacking basic instincts. I plunged down again, reached under the rock, grabbed it, and, thrashing and splashing, wrestled it into the net! Success!!! But wait, the best part is yet to come.

Shelby-Ray and Maggie, the two students who discovered the baby hellbenders while they were looking for stream bugs.

Shelby-Ray and Maggie, the two students who discovered the baby hellbenders while they were looking for stream bugs.

We scrambled up the stream bank and ran down the road, what seemed like half a mile in full wetsuits. Out of breath and exuberant, we arrived back at the group of high school students. Our excitement was infectious, and the high school kids eagerly peered into the net to see the flat, brown, wrinkly salamander that we had worked so hard to catch. It wasn’t nearly as big as it had appeared underwater, and I guessed that this hellbender was a large juvenile, maybe 5 years old and about 18 inches long. As we weighed and measured it, I told the students that this was a good sign – the presence of young hellbenders means that the population is healthy and reproducing.

Two hellbender larvae less than 2 inches (5 cm) long.

Two baby hellbenders less than 2 inches (5 cm) long.

One of the students named Maggie piped up “We found two baby hellbenders – is that a good sign too?” I smiled at her joke, but she insisted that she was serious. I looked at Elliot, our salamander expert that had been supervising the students. He was grinning. Seriously? Elliot pointed to a large plastic tupperware container at the edge of the stream. I ran over and picked it up. Sure enough, there were two miniscule baby (also called larval) hellbenders inside! They still had gills, which they normally lose at about 2 years old, and were smaller than my pinky. This was an epic discovery – I know researchers that have been surveying for 10 years and never found a hellbender this small, and a group of untrained high school students found two! I’m definitely inviting these kids out again next year.

 

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