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.I’m back in southwest Virginia, looking for hellbenders as part of an ongoing research project investigating the links between climate change, disease, water quality and hellbender health. Joining me are Lisa Ware (expert veterinary technician and wildlife photographer extraordinaire), her husband Warren Lynch (hardcore biologist and former marine), and Elliot Lassiter (a self-taught master herpetologist). This is Lisa and Warren’s first hellbender survey, but they lived in Antarctica for 3 months (no joke) so I’m pretty sure they can handle 50°F stream water. Rounding out this indefatigable team are Priscilla Joyner and Thomas Floyd, who met up with us near the stream site. Priscilla is a veterinarian at Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (where Lisa, Warren, and I also work), and Thomas is from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, crossing state boundaries to learn how to safely collect a hellbender blood sample. Of course, you need to actually catch a hellbender to collect a blood sample, and after seeing the high water and raging stream flow, I started to have my doubts…
But we were in luck! Despite being able to barely stand up in the stream, we managed to wrangle two hellbenders on our first day of surveying. Not an impressive number by any means, but we did learn something interesting about these animals. It started with an awful, putrid stench that could only come from something rotten and fishy. We had just finished collecting blood from our second hellbender (as part of a health exam) and were getting ready to microchip him. The microchip is about the size of a sesame seed, and allows us to identify the hellbender if we ever catch him again. It’s the same thing a vet puts into your dog or cat in case it gets lost, only we inject the chip into a slimy, wriggly tail instead of a fuzzy back. As we were getting the microchip ready, the stench hit me. I turned to Elliot, who was keeping the hellbender cool and comfortable in the stream, and saw a dead, rubbery fish inside his net. It took me a second to comprehend what was happening – why was Elliot catching dead rotting fish when he should be paying attention to the hellbender in the net? Then it hit me – the hellbender had puked up the fish! We must have caught him just after he had consumed this massive meal, because the fish was barely digested.
Ok, so animals puke things up all the time. What’s so interesting about this particular vomit? Two things. First, hellbenders are thought to consume almost entirely crayfish, based on previous studies of their stomach contents. But crayfish would probably get digested slowly (because of their chitin exoskeleton), so we may just be missing a lot of the fish before they get digested. Our newfound vomit lends support to the idea that fish (in this case stoneroller fish) are an important part of a hellbender’s diet. Second – and this is really the cool part – the fish was an ENORMOUS meal. It was 8 inches long, and the hellbender’s body was about 10 inches long (17 inches if you include the tail). So the fish was nearly the entire length of the hellbender’s body! Or, if you prefer to think in terms of mass, the fish was more than a quarter of the hellbender’s body weight.
So the next time I’m in a stream and smell something putrid, I’ll run towards it. I just might learn something.