Authored by Stephen Spear
In mid-June, Orianne conservation intern Chloe Moore and I attended the 7th Biennial Hellbender Symposium in St. Louis, Missouri, hosted by the St. Louis Zoo and Jeff Briggler at the Missouri Department of Conservation. Although it strikes a lot of people funny that we have an entire meeting mostly for one species (Chinese and Japanese giant salamanders make cameos as well), there were 125 participants, so clearly there is a lot of interest!
In fact, the hellbender meeting is really an excellent opportunity for us to compare notes about the current status of hellbender conservation and find out what everybody is doing. Often, an innovation or new technique from one group will be used very quickly by other hellbender researchers once it is presented at the meeting. Past meetings have included field trips in which participants assist with survey and monitoring of local rivers, but there weren’t really pressing or feasible survey needs in the area of this meeting. Instead, the organizers put together a program at the St. Louis Zoo that presented various aspects of hellbender conservation in Missouri.
The St. Louis Zoo was very appropriate for this because it is where the first captive breeding of hellbenders took place, and they have been so successful, they now have around 4,000 hellbenders living at the zoo. In fact, for the highly endangered Ozark Hellbender subspecies, there may sadly be more living individuals at the zoo than in the wild. These captive-bred hellbenders are already being used in reintroduction efforts for the Ozark Hellbender in Missouri. Other stations discussed some of the techniques used by hellbender researchers in the field. While I was already familiar with many of the techniques presented, it was useful for me to see how our survey efforts compared to those in Missouri.
The rest of the meeting was devoted to talks and posters by participants about their hellbender work. I presented our work with environmental DNA (eDNA) for Eastern Hellbenders in Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee. You’ve read about our eDNA efforts in past newsletter articles; in this talk I gave an update of where we had found hellbenders using eDNA, as well as our efforts to use eDNA to figure out the population status of hellbenders. We’ve detected a lot of new sites using eDNA, but we’ve also confirmed some broad declines, especially across Middle Tennessee. We are still working to use eDNA to estimate population size—one problem we have is that it is so hard to find all the hellbenders present using snorkel surveys that we don’t really know the true population size to compare with the amounts of eDNA! Chloe and I are doing more research this summer to further address some of these questions—stay tuned for an update on that.
There were also several presentations by others that are relevant to what we are doing, and hope to do, with The Orianne Society hellbender conservation program. One of these talks involved hellbender nest boxes or “hellbender huts.” The idea of artificial nest boxes was first developed in Missouri, and the huts are concrete structures that are open inside where hellbenders can lay and guard nests. They are useful because the good nest rocks in a lot of streams have silted over, and so hellbenders have no place to lay eggs or hatch larva.
In Missouri, they found hellbenders laying eggs in these huts, and this is one of those innovations that got everyone’s attention at a previous hellbender meeting. So much so that pretty much everyone is experimenting with hellbender huts, including trials in North Carolina and Tennessee. A master’s student at Duke, Arianne Messerman, put out nest boxes in North Carolina and noticed that a lot of silt was collecting in the entrance to the nest box, thereby closing off the entrance for hellbenders. One of our ideas was that the boxes may need to be more aerodynamic, so the silt would go by the hut and not collect. When she went to the University of Missouri this past fall to begin her PhD, she consulted with an engineering student, Mohammed Mohammed, and they designed a new, more aerodynamic nest box and brought a prototype to the meeting. Everyone was pretty excited about this new design, and we are planning to test it at new sites in North Carolina to see if it solves the siltation problem and if it has higher hellbender use.
There was also some research pertinent to our eDNA efforts. Paul Hime at the University of Kentucky presented research in which he has identified a genetic marker to determine if a hellbender is male or female. Hellbenders are very difficult to reliably sex outside of the breeding season, so a sex-linked marker could assist population monitoring by taking a tissue sample from captured individuals to later determine their sex. It’s also exciting for eDNA because perhaps we can use this genetic tool to estimate the proportion of males and females in the population. For instance, a lot of hellbender populations don’t seem to be reproducing, and this could be due to a skewed sex ratio, such as many more males than females. If we can rapidly assess the sex ratio of a population and find out there aren’t enough of one sex, then perhaps we can augment those populations with individuals of that sex to increase reproductive success. We don’t know yet if the sex-linked genetic marker will work with eDNA samples—Paul and I are going to do some trials in the near future to see if it works.
Outreach and education is another aspect of hellbender conservation that is needed, as there are many misconceptions about hellbenders, if people know what they are at all. Much of the coordination of outreach/education has been done by Rod Williams and students at Purdue University. They created a “Help the Hellbender” website that provides information and outreach materials on hellbenders (I actually contributed a podcast interview recently for this site). Other states such as North Carolina and Missouri have spent a great deal of time on public education about hellbenders. And we at The Orianne Society have also contributed to hellbender outreach through interviews and articles about hellbenders, both through our website and the national media. As part of outreach discussions at this meeting, we decided to form a Hellbender National Outreach and Education Team. This will allow us all to coordinate on our efforts in the future, as well as collectively brainstorm new ideas to inform people about the importance of hellbenders and how they relate to clean water and healthy streams for people across their range.
These are but a few highlights of the meeting, but hopefully it gives you the idea that this is an exciting time for those working on hellbender conservation. Yes, we are dealing with sharp declines of this ancient animal, but we also have a lot of combined will, ingenuity and effort working together to reverse these declines, and I’m confident we’ll start to have success. I, along with The Orianne Society as a whole, am proud to be part of such efforts and look forward to reporting on and learning about the next big advances in hellbender conservation in two years at our next meeting.