Lauren and I spent the night at a campground just around the corner from the site. On our way into town, we stopped at a small grocery store and ended up making friends with the profusely muscular and impossibly tanned cashier clerk (Lauren opened the conversation with “Are you from Jersey Shore?” which I think he appreciated). Two of his friends were hanging out, and one of them, a nursing student, was very interested in the health component of our hellbender study. She’d never heard of a hellbender, and when I pulled out our life-sized model she was completely floored. How could a 2 foot long salamander that belongs in a “Jurassic Park” prequel be living in the streams of central Pennsylvania?!?
Eric and his surveying crew met us at the campground bright and early, and we followed him to the site. His sizeable group included students, co-workers from Western PA Conservancy, and other researchers. There must have been close to 15 of us in all. I was surprised to learn that Eric didn’t use a peavey (i.e. a giant pole for prying rocks up) and wondered how he possibly managed to survey without one. But when we got to the stream, I discovered that Pennsylvania hellbenders live under very thin, flat rocks that are relatively easy to lift – what a perfect set up! But don’t be mislead, it wasn’t all rainbows and hellbenders. Eric’s team definitely still had to lift an occasional vein-popping boulder.
As we started to survey, I began to have my doubts about this stream. The water level was incredibly low (8 inches in some spots) with very little flow and what seemed to me like a ton of sediment. Our sites in Virginia are pristine by comparison (even with the trout line and panoply of eye-slicing hooks dangling from the trees). Many people don’t think of dirt and sand as being harmful pollutants, but for many aquatic species they are. Sedimentation (or siltation) is likely one of the biggest causes of hellbender declines. Imagine trying to breathe in a small room with high speed fans and bone-dry dirt. I’m thinking that’s what it’s like for hellbenders and other skin-breathing amphibians living in high sediment. But despite the second-rate habitat, we soon found our first hellbender. It was huge! In fact, all of 6 animals we found were ginormous. While it’s nice to find big old hellbenders in the population, it seems like the factory’s shutting down when you don’t see any juveniles or young adults…
After a long sweaty day in the creek, Lauren and I headed back to DC. I was glad to get so many samples (we’re taking a little blood and swabbing for skin bacteria) from this site. If the hellbenders here don’t show any signs of physiological stress, I might have to rethink my study. We got the samples back to the zoo around 10pm, and I went to check on our captive hellbenders at the Appalachian Salamander Lab in the Reptile Discovery Center. After a half hour in the windowless, almost sound-proof lab, I saw what appeared to be a faint strobe light coming from the ceiling. It was a crazy intense lightning storm! While trees were smashing into cars and power lines falling to the ground, the hellbenders were obliviously crawling along in their tanks and digging around for insects to snack on. All in all, it was a pretty intense day.