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. Finding a juvenile in our stream suggests that this particular population is doing well. Once we analyze the blood samples and skin swabs we’re taking from each hellbender, we’ll have a better idea of the population’s health status.
After lunch we got back in the water and, after just 3 minutes of searching, I saw a GIANT head poking out from under a rock. I couldn’t believe it! Hellbenders usually stay completely concealed under rocks during the day, so I was surprised to find this one. I frantically called the rest of the crew over, and we positioned nets on each side of the rock. I was nervous to scare the hellbender away, because it was right next to a huge boulder that we’d never be able to lift. Fortunately the rock the hellbender was under was tiny, not even big enough to cover its entire body. I picked up the rock with one hand and shooed the hellbender right into the net – it was textbook! This guy was about 600g, more than 3 times the size of the last one we caught!
After we released the big guy, we search for another hour and came upon a third hellbender. This one was under a boulder, and we spent the next half hour trying to coax it out. Finally the hellbender saw a couple fish swim by and wiggled forward to investigate. I quickly grabbed it from behind and got it right into the net! This hellbender was a little smaller than the last one and a whole lot calmer. We got it to the bank, and I noticed it had a stumpy back leg. All the toes were intact, and it looked like the foot was in the process of regenerating! (BTW, salamanders are the only animals with a backbone that can do this!) This was another good sign for the population. Hellbenders in Arkansas and Missouri have apparently lost the ability to regenerate their limbs, and biologists often find animals with missing toes and feet. It’s a great sign that we’re not seeing these abnormalities in the Virginia hellbenders!
After a long day, we headed back to the ranch. We’re going to try a night survey for the first time tonight. Because hellbenders are nocturnal, I’m hoping they’ll be out in the open, just waiting for us to scoop them up. It’d be great to be able to find them without having to turn over a single rock. The crew is really excited to try this out…