Most of my posts so far have focused on seabirds and other creatures of the deep, due to the nature of my job and current location on the coast of Maine. I do, however, have interests beyond birding and marine biology, and this blog will probably branch out more as my time with Project Puffin draws to a close. Boat tours are officially over as of last night, and I bade farewell to Eastern Egg Rock with a perfect record for puffin spotting. Most of my time is now spent at the Visitor Center, where I am currently writing this post from. It can be a little quiet, but there are still plenty of interesting opportunities to be had here. Just last week I was called upon to discuss a different type of science: Herpetology. A friend of a friend is in the reptile-and-amphibian business, and he co-hosts a weekly radio show on the subject called Herpin Time. About a month ago, he posted a call to arms for biologists who’ve worked with a very special salamander known as the Hellbender.
Growing up to 29 inches in length, Hellbenders are the largest salamanders in North America, dwarfed only by their close relatives the Japanese and Chinese Giant Salamanders (which are true giants, approaching 6 feet in length). These three species are collectively known as Cryptobranchids, a word which derives from the Greek for “hidden gill.” This title was chosen in reference to their skin-based respiratory system. A variety of colorful local names have also been applied to Hellbender, including “snot otter,” “Allegheny alligator,” and “mud devil.” They are exceedingly strange-looking creatures, with wrinkled skin, a flattened head, and muddy coloration. Hellbenders inhabit swift-running streams in parts of the eastern United States, requiring well-oxygenated water for their unique respiration and large, submerged rocks to make their dens under. Due to these specific habitat requirements, they are incredibly vulnerable to human activity. Dams, accidental catch by fishermen, increased populations of predators, and water pollution are all threats to these animals, which have been listed as endangered in parts of their range. The radio program was focused on increasing awareness about Hellbender conservation through a round-table with researchers. My good friend Don saw the post and linked me to it, knowing that I had a tale or two about the snot otter.
I first learned of the Hellbender from the TV program Kratt’s Creatures, a source of much of my childhood biology knowledge. The animal’s bizarre appearance, as well as its unique name, caught my attention and kept a hold on it. Over the years, I would encounter the beast from time-to-time in field guides, science books, and video games (The Pokémon Quagsire is based on the larger Cryptobranchid salamanders, but I still recognized it as a Hellbender cousin). I was aware that they could be found the Appalachians, including parts of New York, but I never gave much thought to the possibility of actually encountering one in the wild. My hands-on experience with these animals was finally made possible through Cornell’s Herpetology Club. The club has teamed up with Kenneth Roblee of the Department of Environmental Conservation and the Buffalo Zoo to assist with a reintroduction program. The zoo has raised a crop of young Hellbenders which were removed from the wild as eggs. The hope is that by raising them until they are large enough to fend for themselves and avoid most predators, they will have better odds at surviving until breeding age. These “head-started” youngsters are now being turned loose in western New York streams, and I was fortunate to be part of the inaugural release. We reintroduced 25 Hellbenders in the fall of 2012, and we also encountered more than a dozen wild individuals. The largest adult we found measured in at 21 inches, and I got the pleasure of restraining the slimy, writhing salamander as it was radio tagged before release. Definitely a memorable experience with an unforgettable creature!
I was excited about the prospect of discussing conservation on the radio, having never been on the air before. My previous media experience included theater, band, interpretation, announcing, and a brief stint in commercials, but no radio work. Still, I’ve been told I have a face for it, and I thought it was a fantastic opportunity for scientific dialogue, so I agreed to do the gig. At 6 pm on Wednesday, August 20, I called in to Herpin Time and awaited the start of the show. The hosts, Justin and JD, began with a recap of their herping activities since the previous week, and after “a word from our sponsors” they opened the lines for us guests. I had the chance to speak with two exceptional Hellbender biologists: Kim Terrell and Obed Hernandez-Gomez. Both have worked extensively on the genetics of these salamanders in the hopes of better understanding their plight. Next to these experts, I felt like an inexperienced, know-nothing kid, and I was admittedly a bit quiet during the beginning of the program. As the talk progressed, however, things warmed up and we were all able to contribute to a great discussion. I shared my experiences with Hellbenders and the head-starting program, and I was called upon a few times to answer questions about their biology and life history. Obed and Kim had fascinating stories about their research, which included resolving genetic differences between subspecies, studying reactions to infection by fungi and other microbes, and searching streams for Hellbender activity by testing the water for their DNA. You can listen to the radio program at the link below, and I encourage you to follow up on Ken, Kim, and Obed’s work if you’re interested!