Institution: Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC)
My job: Hellbender Whisperer
Real title: Herpetologist
Education: University of Arkansas-Fayetteville, Ph.D., 2005.
How I help save sallies: I’m responsible for protecting and monitoring the 112 species of amphibians and reptiles in Missouri, including hellbenders. As state herpetologist it’s my duty to ensure that none of these remarkable species go extinct during my watch. I’m also a founding member of the Ozark Hellbender Working Group – a team of federal, state, academic and NGO partners that works to identify and mitigate the key threats facing this species in our region. We collect valuable information about the size, demographics and health of hellbender populations in Arkansas in Missouri. We’re engaged in a broad range of hellbender research projects; we study the survival of reintroduced animals, the effects of native and non-native fish, sperm freezing techniques, stress/reproductive hormones, and genetic differences among populations. My most exciting project involves igloo-shaped hellbender nest boxes. I designed and constructed these nests with ‘peepholes’ at the top so that we can study the natural reproductive behavior of hellbenders in the wild. The peepholes also allow us to sneak past daddy hellbender and collect embryos (fertilized eggs) that can be raised in captivity (where it’s safer) and later released back into the wild. These ‘captive-propagation’ efforts are based at the St. Louis Zoo’s Ron Goellner Center for Hellbender Conservation and the MDC’s Shepherd of the Hills Hatchery. Ensuring that captive-raised hellbenders survive in a wild, healthy stream can be tough, but my biggest challenge is protecting Boo Boo Biologist (a.k.a. Kelly Irwin) from injury! So far Boo Boo has survived, and hellbenders continue to inhabit Ozark rivers and streams. Public support for this remarkable species is critical to ensuring that it inhabits our waterways for millions of years to come.
Best salamander story: Ever wonder what it’s like being bitten by a hellbender? By nature, hellbenders are docile animals that rarely bite, but they get pretty aggressive when you attempt to collect their eggs. While ‘noodling’ eggs out of a nest last September, daddy hellbender grabbed my finger and launched into a death-roll. Its sharp, tiny teeth and strong jaws left me with deep cuts and a scar. But the biologist in me was glad to see papa doing his job to ensure future generations of hellbenders. As any self-respecting biologist would do when bitten by an animal that they love, I collected extensive photographic documentation for immediate distribution.