Populations dominated by large adults, which was my experience for two decades and what was thought to be normal, is a sign of trouble. Exactly why recruitment of young into adulthood is not occurring is the focus of research of many people who study hellbenders throughout their range.
Do you think that the hellbenders need further habitat protection or other protective measures?
I do. I think that any protection that can be given to protect streams and their watersheds will not only benefit hellbenders but all species that inhabit the streams.
Organizations in many states are developing head-start programs that will release 3– to 4-year-old hellbenders into the wild. The St. Louis Zoo has been the leader in these efforts and have successfully reared thousands of hellbenders, I think a few thousand annually for many years. The Nashville Zoo is developing a head start program but is not yet raising as many hellbenders as the St. Louis Zoo.
Are industrial or mining chemicals in the water a threat to this species?
Any contaminants dumped into streams can present problems for the inhabitants, including hellbenders. Although I know of no studies that causally link a specific industry or mining activity with hellbender declines, certain types of mining activities severely alter stream water quality and present a clear threat to all aquatic life, including hellbenders.
For example, increased sedimentation can destroy habitat used by hellbenders, including their breeding sites.
I noticed a paper in your publications list that described the demography of Cryptobranchus alleganiensis in the Ozarks. What can you tell us about your research on Eastern hellbenders in Missouri?
This manuscript was one of several that stemmed from the Ph.D. research of Chris Peterson.
This manuscript, and all the work I was involved with in Missouri and Arkansas, was published prior to noticeable declines rangewide.
Populations discussed were all dominated by large sexually mature adults. Sadly, these populations crashed several years after the paper was published.
You are the sole author of a 2017 paper describing the hellbender demography in the Little Buffalo River at Laurel Hill Wildlife Management Area. What did you discover about that population?
The report is one of several that I wrote for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. It described my projects conducted in the Little Buffalo River. Rather than summarizing the report, I will summarize my efforts on populations in the river.
I first discovered populations of hellbenders on the Little Buffalo river in 2012 and began examining population structure in 2015. My student assistants and I could locate hellbenders easily early on (2012, 2015, 2016), but numbers of hellbenders that we find in a day has decreased significantly over the years. Although I have documented some young hellbenders in the river, the population is skewed to older adults.
My data suggests that, as happened with populations in streams I studied in the Eastern Highland Rim, populations in the Western Highland Rim are in jeopardy of being extirpated.
What is the one most important thing you would like our readers to remember about the hellbender?
I am often asked, “Why should anyone care about the hellbender,” or some other species of salamander or seldom-seen animal. I assume that most readers are unaware of the occurrence of the hellbender or have never seen one in the wild. Certainly, most have not seen very many or handled any.
I guess that is the problem. Most of us who care about wild places and the wildlife that inhabit those places are concerned about the loss of both the places and the life.
Based on early accounts, hellbenders were common and abundant in many streams throughout the eastern United States through the middle portion of the 20th century.
Populations have crashed during the past 40 years, and few knew. It is difficult to care about a species if you are not aware of its existence, or that it is in jeopardy of extirpation or extinction.
My take-home message is that hellbenders are interesting inhabitants of streams in our area. Healthy populations are important components of the stream ecosystem as they can compose a large component of the vertebrate biomass in those streams.
They are certainly an important component of the natural history of our region and as such are worthy of our attention and protection.
Just as society recognizes the value of conserving aspects of American history, such as buildings, we should recognize the value in conserving aspects of our natural history. Too often people look for an economic value of a species, such as pharmaceuticals that can be derived from glands or other organs. I have never cared much for that approach.
I think the hellbender is worthy of protection simply because of its inherent value to a healthy ecosystem and as a component of our natural history.
Unfortunately, without an improvement in stream water quality, hellbender populations are likely to continue their precipitous decline that has been occurring for decades.