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.

Here’s how it works:

Step 1: We program the thermostats on hellbender tanks to mimic water temperatures in a warmer climate.

Step 2: We collect blood samples from the hellbenders every month for a year.

Step 3: We take the blood samples to a lab and mix them with different types of disease-causing bacteria.

Everybody’s favorite bacteria: E. coli! And it comes in both liquid and glob form.

Step 4: After a few hours, we measure the percent of bacteria in each sample that were killed by disease-fighting proteins in the hellbender blood. This is referred to as the blood’s Bacteria-Killing Ability (BKA). If the bacteria were in the hellbender’s body, a high BKA would help it fight an infection.

Step 5: We compare BKA between hellbenders kept in warmer versus normal temperatures.

By understanding the relationship between BKA and temperature, we can help predict if climate change will increase disease in wild hellbenders, and which populations would be most at risk. Identifying the threats facing wild salamanders is the first step to ensuring the survival of these remarkable species.

I just hope I can get used to the stench of that bacteria – we still have 11 months to go before the experiment’s over.

There’s fungus among us: Cladosporium cladosporioides.

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