Hellbenders

Authored by Stephen Spear

For me, the month of May has come to represent the beginning of hellbender season. It’s the time of year when the mountain temperatures are warming up enough to allow us to snorkel in the cold rivers and creeks that Eastern Hellbenders inhabit without worrying too much about hypothermia! It’s also an exciting time because I get to finally see all of the planning work I’ve done in the winter start to come to fruition. I’m especially excited about this summer, as we will we be initiating some new projects that should benefit hellbender conservation in the southern Blue Ridge.

Those of you that have followed our hellbender conservation efforts know that we have been primarily involved in the monitoring of hellbender populations through innovative environmental DNA (eDNA) approaches, which allow us to detect hellbender presence in a less intrusive manner than traditional snorkel surveys. We are adding a new wrinkle to our eDNA work this year by having citizen scientists help collect and filter water samples used for eDNA analysis. We will use the samples collected by our volunteers to help validate whether hellbenders occur in areas that we predict them to be based on a computer model for North Carolina. The citizen scientists will help us cover many more sites than we would be able to do on our own.

When I put out the call for volunteers, I wasn’t sure how much response we would get—after all, pumping water through a filter can get tedious! But we had a great response; so much so that we expanded the project to include sites in Tennessee that are part of a similar validation effort by Tennessee State University graduate student Jeronimo Silva. As a result, several of my weekend days in May were spent at training sessions in North Carolina (Asheville and Franklin), Tennessee (Knoxville) and Georgia (Rabun Gap). During the training sessions, it was apparent the enthusiasm each volunteer had for “helping the hellbender,” and I am excited to be able to share the results of all the samples they collected at the end of the summer.

Hellbenders

Monitoring where hellbenders currently occur is very important, but it is only half the necessary effort. We need to do something to help the populations we monitor. While hellbender declines cannot be simplified to a single factor, sedimentation that reduces water quality and covers shelter rocks is a big part of the problem. It’s a big issue, but it’s also one we can actually take some action towards improving. For instance, we can reduce sedimentation by restoring trees along rivers and streams, and we can replace embedded rocks through artificial rock habitat (a.k.a. hellbender huts) that can be provide both shelter and a place for hellbenders to lay eggs.

These two approaches are very complementary to each other. If sedimentation is reduced through stream restoration, the habitat may still not be suitable since all the rocks may have been buried previously. Introducing hellbender huts can solve that issue. On the other hand, simply installing hellbender huts is probably going to be ineffective if sedimentation issues are not addressed since they will just get covered up themselves. This summer, we are working with partners who have completed recent stream restoration projects to identify the best areas to install hellbender huts to help recover the populations in those reaches. Recent research in Virginia has shown that hellbender huts are most successful when there is nearby cobble, a low to medium percentage of natural boulders, and at least some hellbenders present. This gives us a road map to survey potential sites to figure out the best spots for placing hellbender huts.

Along with Orianne Field Technician Chloe Moore and University of Georgia undergraduate volunteer Andrew Johns, we recently conducted such a survey in a Little Tennessee River tributary that we believe is an important spot to restore hellbender populations. We were at this site in partnership with the Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (GADNR). So on a day in May, we were joined by GADNR biologist Thomas Floyd and the sixth-grade class of teacher Johnathan Bysura. The creek we were walking has eDNA positives and sporadic hellbender observations, but nobody in our team had ever seen a hellbender there. However, we would have a lot more confidence in where to place Hellbender huts if we could locate a Hellbender.

As we walked upstream, we noticed signs of past sedimentation, but overall there were a lot of cobble and aquatic insects. That was a good sign; cobble and insects for prey are two things larval hellbenders need. But as expected, we didn’t see a lot of boulder rocks that would serve as shelter and nesting places for adult hellbenders. We lifted the ones we did see to look for adults, but we didn’t find any. Still, it was fun witnessing the enthusiasm of the sixth grade students as we showed them some of our field techniques such as pebble counts, water quality measurement and estimating turbidity.

Later in the afternoon, the kids took a break to swim in a deeper part of the creek as Thomas, Chloe, Andrew and I kept working up the creek looking for good habitat. As we traversed a run of particularly good cobble, Andrew looked up and called us over to take a look at a rock he thought might be big enough. As I lifted the rock up with a log peavey, Thomas dipped his head in the water and quickly emerged, saying, “There’s a hellbender there!” We quickly fished out a bag for the animal and called for the students to come over. I could tell you that the students were excited, but in this case, I think the photo speaks it much better than I could put into words. We showed the students the type of data we collect for each individual hellbender and then released him back under his rock. And best of all, we had confirmed our first site for installing hellbender huts and are looking forward to identifying more hellbender hut locations throughout the summer.

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