We woke up this morning refreshed and ready for a new day of hellbendering. I was hoping to catch at least 3 more animals in order to get enough samples for my study. Lauren and Brad had to leave yesterday afternoon to return to work, so the group was down to JD, Jeff, Dan and I. We missed Lauren’s animal handling expertise and Brad’s technical skills, but we managed to remain a pretty efficient crew. We caught our quota of 3 hellbenders before lunchtime, so we decided to try a brand new site that had never been surveyed for hellbenders. On Monday I had struck up a conversation with a guy hanging out of a pickup truck in a Food City parking lot. He had seen the realistic hellbender model that I keep on the van dashboard and wanted to know where I got it (and, I think, whether it was taxidermied). He mentioned that he had some buddies who had caught some ‘benders at a fishing hole up the road, and this was a creek that I had been wanting to survey since I scoped it out last summer.
When we got to the new site I started to have some doubts. Many of the big rocks were too embedded to have anything under them, and I started to feel like turning over each rock was just a formality before we could call it quits. There was no official record of hellbenders in this creek, and we were a good ways downstream from the fishing hole (which turned out to be just across the border into Tennessee, where I didn’t have a survey permit). But just when I was feeling like this was a complete waste of time, I reached under and rock and felt the soft, familiar squish of a hellbender. Yes!!! This catch was a big deal – it represented a new record of a hellbender population in a state where the species has a very limited distribution. This kind of information is especially important right now because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering this subspecies of hellbender (the eastern) as a candidate for endangered species listing. Knowing where a species occurs is the first step towards assessing its extinction risk. After another hour of searching we caught a second adult (a big fat one!) and a little juvenile. I couldn’t have imagined a better outcome – we found what appeared to be a high-density population with evidence of successful reproduction at a whole new site. What a fabulous way to end the trip. :)