Helping Us Help Hellbenders, One Bottle at a Time



Authored by Stephen Spear

Helping Hellbenders

Ever wondered what was in the river near your house? The Orianne Society is pleased to announce a new citizen science program that will start this spring and summer to help you answer that question. As you may be aware if you have followed our work, environmental DNA (eDNA) has been an important tool in our efforts to identify and monitor populations of species such as hellbenders. While the extraction and identification of DNA from water requires trained scientists in the lab, collection and filtering of water samples is an ideal way to involve anyone interested in helping to monitor rare species. It also can be one of the more time-consuming aspects of eDNA, so it’s a way that people can really help us out and allow us to test more populations.

We are asking people to assist our Eastern Hellbender conservation efforts by collecting and filtering water at sites where we are trying to identify whether hellbenders currently occur. For example, one project will be to test a model of hellbender habitat developed by our conservation partners, so citizen scientists will go to sites where hellbenders are predicted to see if they actually occur there. We would also encourage people who live by rivers and streams that are potential hellbender sites to nominate them as collection sites. To begin, we are limiting our sample sites to the Little Tennessee, Tuckasegee and French Broad drainages in western North Carolina and North Georgia (basically near the towns of Franklin and Asheville, NC), so participants would need to live in these areas or be willing to travel to them.

So what are the benefits to participating in our eDNA collection project? First, it’s a great excuse to spend some time by a river for a couple of hours! And while I’ll be the first to admit that filtering water can be tedious at times, I’ve seen a lot of cool things while filtering streamside, including different species of birds, snakes, turtles and salamanders. And who knows, you may get really lucky and see a hellbender head popping out from underneath a rock!

Helping Hellbenders

You’ll also know that you are helping important conservation monitoring, and we will share what we find with you, so you will know if you have hellbenders in your neighborhood. Plus, one of the projects we hope to start soon would attempt to identify DNA from all of the amphibian, fish and invertebrate species at the site. While we can’t promise this yet (we have to test it out in the lab), there is a good chance you would be able to learn about a whole community of animals where you ‘ve sampled.

There are some differences between this project and some of our past citizen science efforts such as Snapshots in Time and Places You’ve Never Herped. Those projects do not require previous training of any kind before data collection. In contrast, successful eDNA collection is highly dependent on following strict protocols to make sure DNA isn’t accidentally spread among samples and to make sure the samples are stored correctly for future genetic analysis. This isn’t difficult to do and doesn’t require special skills. However, it does require an initial training session where experienced personnel can show volunteers how to properly collect the samples. We also need effective communication between all volunteers since we have specific sites that need to be sampled, and we want to make sure sites are sampled the correct number of times. The good news is that it is easy to learn, and citizen science eDNA projects have been very successful elsewhere, including for hellbenders in Virginia.

So here are the details for anyone interested: We are accepting applications for eDNA citizen scientists through April 15, 2016. We hope to accommodate everyone that is interested, but if there are a lot of potential participants, we may be limited by funding and have to develop a waiting list. As our study area is limited to western North Carolina and North Georgia, all participants must either live in this region or be able to travel there at least once during the summer. Furthermore, participants must be willing to undergo a short training session on how to collect eDNA before collecting at a site. All collecting and filtering supplies will be provided, and each sampling session will take approximately two to three hours.

To apply, please send the following information to your name, e-mail address, phone number, your general availability to collect samples between May and September 2016, and the number of times you would be willing to collect samples. In the subject line, please write “Hellbender eDNA Citizen Science.” And if you have any questions about the project, please feel free to e-mail us with those, as well.

We are excited to get this project started and be able to meet all our neighbors interested in hellbender conservation!