Hell-bent on conservation

Ever feel like you’re living under a rock?

Hellbenders sure do. These giant salamanders — which can grow to about the length of your arm — sometimes call the same rock home for a decade or more.

Eastern hellbenders can be found along river and stream bottoms in the central Appalachians from southern New York down to northern Alabama, and as far west as eastern Missouri and as far east as eastern Pennsylvania. Living up to 30 years or more, they have flattened bodies with a large keeled tail, tiny eyes and fleshy skin folds along their sides that help them obtain oxygen from the water to breathe.

Juvenile hellbender raised at the WCS Bronx Zoo after release in to a Susquehanna River tributary. Image courtesy of Peter Petokas

But in the upper reaches of the Susquehanna River, these elusive creatures mysteriously disappeared in the late 1990s. They disappeared in some other areas, too.

Was it poor water quality? According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service endangered species biologist Noelle Rayman-Metcalf, water quality is one element of stress on the hellbender. Water can become polluted as it runs off crop land and feed lots, parking lots and roadways, and areas developed for industrial use.

Or maybe it was sedimentation. When river and stream banks erode, fine soil particles and small stones can be carried into streams. That sediment buries the rocks that hellbenders use for cover and nesting. Erosion can be caused by many activities, from development, dams and deforestation to flooding and off-road vehicle use.

Could have been disease, too. An amphibian fungal disease known as chytrid has been found to infect hellbenders and may weaken their ability to breathe through the skin. It’s been linked to population declines and extinctions among amphibians worldwide. The fungus is believed to occur in all streams occupied by hellbenders, with up to 40 percent of wild hellbenders infected.

Turns out a few had survived, hidden there, unseen.

The disappearance dragged on for more than a decade before a critical discovery by a University of Buffalo doctoral student. Robin Foster, now a Canisius College instructor, had searched the Susquehanna for three years when she found a single hellbender — and a nest.

Whatever the history, this nest was the first to be found in recent years in the northern reaches of the Susquehanna River watershed.

With high hopes, Foster and biologists from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation collected the eggs for a captive breeding program at the Bronx Zoo. The goal was to raise and release healthy young hellbenders back into a Susquehanna River tributary.

Michelle Herman, SUNY-ESF graduate student, searching for released juveniles using a reader that can locate microchips implanted in the young hellbenders. Image courtesy of Peter Petokas

In August 2018, 100 juvenile hellbenders raised at the zoo were tagged with microchips and released to boost the population. Eventually, the project may expand to other tributaries as opportunities and funding allow. The current head-starting and hellbender reintroduction project is a cooperative effort by faculty, students, and staff with Lycoming College, SUNY Environmental Science and Forestry, the Upper Susquehanna Coalition and The Wetland Trust.

The hellbender restoration project has had to overcome some initial challenges but, overall, signs are good and the released animals are surviving, Rayman-Metcalf said.

“We have learned some lessons from poor survival in the Allegheny River watershed head-starting program,” she said. The cause was determined to be chytrid fungus. The captive-raised animals had not been exposed to disease agents, so biologists believe they were particularly vulnerable to chytrid fungus. Many most likely did not survive the release.

Because of this, researchers working on the Susquehanna project have “treated” the young hellbenders from the Bronx Zoo by exposing them during the rearing process to stream water and food sources that carry chytrid fungal spores. The hope is to increase immunity to the fungus and boost survival rate in the wild.

If the young hellbenders exposed to chytrid-contaminated conditions survive better than those reared in sterile conditions, then similar treatments may be applied to other hellbender head-starting projects, Rayman-Metcalf said.

Hellbender eggs in a ‘bender hut.’ Image courtesy of Peter Petokas

Captive rearing is just one part of the effort to restore the eastern hellbender to its historic range. Declines in other areas have catalyzed wildlife biologists hoping to prevent the at-risk species from becoming threatened or endangered. In several states, including New York, conservation partners are building artificial nest boxes (affectionally called bender huts) to place in streams. Resembling natural rocks, these concrete boxes are designed to reduce the buildup of sediment and allow researchers to monitor the presence of adults, juveniles, and any clutches of hellbender eggs deposited inside them in the early fall. Females deposit the eggs and the males fertilize and guard them until the young hellbenders leave the nest in mid-spring. State wildlife grants have funded these boxes in Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, too.

Monitoring of hellbenders in the Upper Susquehanna by SUNY ESF shows that the bender huts are already in use. In fall 2017, two hellbender nests were found within the huts within a years’ time of deploying them into a stream. Eggs from those nests were collected for the next cohort of hellbenders to be reared at the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Bronx Zoo rearing facility.

Eastern hellbenders have prevailed in eastern North American waterways for millions of years, and many scientists aim to ensure that they are around for millions more. Assessing the future of hellbenders has been the focus of a recent status assessment. A committee of Service biologists spent over a year gathering and analyzing the best available scientific data on eastern hellbender, consulting with university professors, state biologists, researchers, and zoo biologists. Their work will inform a decision on whether or not the hellbender warrants protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Regardless, Rayman-Metcalf is positive about the collaboration among so many different groups and agencies to help protect these prehistoric creatures.

“A tremendous effort is being put forward to try to save hellbenders and preserve the diversity of salamander species,” she said. “It’s been really wonderful to see.”

The hellbender restoration team: kneeling, James Gibbs-SUNY-ESF; back left-to-right, Kelvin Alvarez-WCS, Peter Petokas-Lycoming College; Don Boyer-WCS; Paige Kline-Lycoming College; Jeremy Waddell-USC; Ruric Bowman-Lycoming College; Michelle Herman-SUNY-ESF. Image courtesy of Peter Petokas

The eastern hellbender is a species at risk of needing federal Endangered Species Act protection. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is in the process of reviewing the species’ status. The at-risk salamander has already benefited from collaborative conservation in eastern U.S. More than 185 species in the eastern United States have needed less or no federal protection thanks to coordination and collaboration by partners across their ranges. The effort to conserve at-risk wildlife and recover listed species is led by the Service and state wildlife agencies in partnership with other public and private partners. Our use of conservation incentives and flexibilities to protect wildlife, reduce regulations and keep working lands working has drawn support from Congress.

Jennifer Lynch Murphy is a wildlife biologist with C&S Engineers, specializing bird-aircraft collisions. She lives in Sunderland, MA with her husband, Kevin, and dog, Levi.