Monday, August 29, 2011

Hellbender Trip 2011

The Cornell Herpetological Society annual hellbender trip took place this past Saturday, August 27.  We saw four hellbenders and had lots of fun! The herp club owes a big thanks to Ken Roblee, who generously spent his day guiding us and teaching us about these amazing creatures. The trip is something the club has been doing nearly every year for about two decades, and we are really lucky to have the opportunity to see these little-known animals in the wild. To check out a past trip, take a peek at this blog.

For those of you who have never heard of hellbenders before, they are giant (up to 2 feet or more) aquatic salamanders that live in the eastern United States. Other names for them include snot otter and grampus. Their scientific name, Cryptobranchus alleganiensis, comes from the ancient Greek words "kryptos" (hidden) and "branchos" (gill).

Adults are found under large, flat rocks in streams. Males battle each other for access to the best rocks, where females will later come to lay their eggs. The male will then fertilize the eggs externally (unlike most salamanders, which fertilize internally) and guard the eggs until they hatch.

We spent the day flipping these large, flat rocks in hopes  of finding hellbenders. We generally had two people lift the rock up, two hold large nets downstream from the rock to catch runaway hellbenders, and one or two feel around for the salamanders and guide them into the nets.



We even found a mudpuppy, Necturus maculosus
(notice the external gills):

Whenever we caught a hellbender, we took data such as weight, total length, snout to vent length, sex, and gps coordinates. Ken PIT-tagged any hellbender that was deemed large enough. PIT stands for Passive Integrated Transponder, and is a tiny electronic tag that can transmit a unique code composed of a series of numbers and letters. The tag is implanted using a hypodermic needle.



Inserting a PIT tag:

We eventually moved to another stream where juveniles from a head-starting program at the Buffalo Zoo have been released. Although hellbenders can live up to 40 years, they are being wiped out in a lot of the streams where they once lived, and the situation is looking grim. Even in streams where they are still present, there are not as many juveniles as there should be, indicating that they aren't breeding as successfully as they once were. The program at the Buffalo Zoo is meant to raise young hellbenders until they are big enough to have a better chance at surviving, and then release them back into the wild. Before they are released, zoo staff implant PIT tags so that they can be monitored with a device that looks like a metal detector. It can detect the tags even through several inches of rock, making it easier to monitor the population without disturbing too many individuals.

Looking for PIT-tagged juveniles:

It started to get late and we finally had to pack up and come back to Ithaca tired but excited about the incredible experience. Now we are looking forward to seeing young hellbenders in the head-start program at the Buffalo Zoo on our October field trip. Hopefully hellbender conservation efforts like theirs will be successful, and we will continue to see them in the wild for years to come.

Photos: Brian Sherman

Post by Jessica Tingle

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