Authored by Chloe Moore
Approximately three months ago the closest I’d ever gotten to a Hellbender was looking at a specimen in a jar for my vertebrate natural history class. In a single summer working with The Orianne Society, I can happily say that I’ve observed my fair share of “snot otters” alive and in their natural habitat, and that was only after one week of interning! Add in environmental DNA (eDNA) work, a herp trip with other Orianne Society members and an entire conference dedicated to Hellbender conservation, and this has definitely been a summer to remember.
In the aforementioned first week of Hellbender sightings, I traveled with Dr. Stephen Spear to Tennessee and North Carolina to assist in stream surveying and monitoring. It was at my first snorkel survey in Tennessee that I saw my first live Hellbender and where I came to understand the nickname “snot otter” as one individual slipped out of my hands and swam away before we could record it. The purpose of this survey was to capture and PIT tag individuals for a capture-mark-recapture population estimate of the stream.
The rest of the week we assisted a graduate student from Appalachian State University in his stream assessments and Hellbender surveys for his research. These surveys allowed me to witness my first look at the process for collecting eDNA. In just one week I learned hands-on about two different ways people are helping with the conservation of Hellbenders through field research.
The rest of the summer I focused on my primary responsibility of working on my senior thesis and helping Dr. Spear with assessing the affects of development on Hellbender presence in good habitat streams using eDNA in the Little Tennessee Watershed. The process started with setting up the MaxEnt habitat model. MaxEnt is a computer program that will take various GIS layers, like percent development or average temperature, in a designated area and use previously-recorded presence points to create a map that displays the best Hellbender habitat theoretically.
Creating the layers and using the data from MaxEnt required me to use ArcGIS. It took several hours of trial and error and computer malfunctions to get the final layers, but I have no doubt that I will use what I learned in the future. The next step in the process was taking the MaxEnt data and picking possible sample sites based on three levels of development. This was again done in ArcGIS, but things ran smoother after learning from my mistakes in the beginning.
Over a long weekend I had the opportunity to take a break from the computer lab and tag along with Orianne Society members on the Places You’ve Never Herped trip to South Carolina. I couldn’t have asked for a better group to go on my first organized herp trip, as every single person participating had an astounding amount of knowledge and appreciation for amphibians and reptiles. The trip consisted of two days of kayaking, hiking and camping while recording amphibian and reptile species spotted near the coast of South Carolina.
We saw American Alligators, Scarlet Snakes, Yellow-bellied Sliders, Eastern Glass Lizards, Eastern Spadefoots, Oak Toads, Spotted Turtles and Rough Greensnakes to name just a small percentage of the finds from the weekend. My favorite individual was a Rainbow Snake found by one of the other participants. I spent several late nights in the library the previous semester researching the little that is known on the species for a research paper, but I never imagined that I would have the opportunity to hold the beautiful and elusive species.
Another exciting event I had the opportunity to participate in was the Biannual Hellbender Conference held this year in St. Louis. The conference consisted of over 100 people dedicated to researching and helping Hellbender populations. People came from all over the east coast, covering most of the states in Hellbender habitat range, with a few participants from all the way across the country and the Pacific to talk about the Japanese Giant Salamander and Chinese Giant Salamander. Participants ranged from state department officials to zookeepers and graduate students to undergraduate students.
I learned about various participants’ research projects and efforts to help Hellbender conservation, like a PhD student’s efforts to create the best possible nest box by issuing the help of an engineer. The conference took place at the St. Louis Zoo, which houses a breeding facility for Hellbenders that will eventually be released back into the wild when reared to the correct age. I had the opportunity to tour the facility and learn about all of the important details that go into successfully breeding such a large number of Hellbenders.
The rest of my summer with Orianne consisted of collecting eDNA samples from the sites found using the maxENT model. I would travel to about three or four different streams all throughout the Little Tennessee Watershed. At each site I collected three filters for eDNA and water quality metrics. The goal was to visit about 30 sites, with 10 sites for each level of development. Some days we’d sample a stream in the middle of the woods only reachable by an unpaved road, while other days we’d be sitting at a stream right next to a large parking lot for a major development. Every day of sampling felt like another adventure into the wilderness of North Carolina. By the end of the summer I managed to collect 29 different sites, and I look forward to extracting the DNA and analyzing the data in the next couple of months.
My summer of Hellbenders came to a close, but I can easily say this has been one of the most rewarding and interesting summer experiences that I’ve ever had. I’m sad the summer went by so quickly, but I can’t wait to use everything I’ve learned in the future as I start building my career.