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October 2013


photo: Christian Sperka

Saving The Snot Otter

the Orianne Society's Efforts to conserve the largest North American salamander

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IMAGINE you are visiting a mountain stream somewhere in the Appalachians of the eastern United States. Maybe you’re swimming, kayaking, even fishing. All of a sudden you look down, and an odd creature enters your field of view. You do a double take and try to figure out this strange creature. At a glance it looks like some giant lizard slowly crawling along the river bottom. But if it is, it’s the strangest lizard you’ve ever seen. It’s got a flattened head, with lots of folds around its side, and it doesn’t have any scales. So it’s not a lizard. But what is it? You don’t know – all you know is that you’ve never seen anything like it before. While you puzzle it out, the animal crawls underneath a large rock and disappears from view.

An embattled remnant of the distant past The creature you have just seen is a hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis) and it is a salamander. It looks quite different than most salamanders, it is very large (sometimes more than two feet long) and it has 2 ORIANNESOCIETY.ORG Indigo short

a flattened body. In fact, it doesn’t just look different than most salamanders; it is also one of the most ancient salamander species still around today. Its closest relatives are the giant salamanders

in China and Japan, and the fossil record goes back to the Jurassic period. From this perspective, rivers with hellbenders are already a “Jurassic Park”. Unfortunately, this unique, ancient elder of our rivers might be on the way to extinction. The hellbender is divided into two subspecies: the Eastern Hellbender (C. a. alleganiensis) and the Ozark Hellbender (C. a. bishopi). The Ozark hellbender occurs only in Missouri and Arkansas and is already listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. There are only a few rivers where scientists and managers can still find the Ozark Hellbender despite the fact that researchers used to find these salamanders numbering in the hundreds or thousands just a few decades ago. The Ozark recovery team is doing an incredible job trying to save this subspecies, with successful captive breeding at the St. Louis Zoo and protecting the few remaining populations, but it’s still an uphill battle. The other subspecies, the Eastern Hellbender, is the target of The Orianne Society’s hellbender conservation efforts, along with a diverse group of partners. This species has a broader range, with populations in portions of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Georgia. The plight of the Eastern Hellbender is not as dire as the Ozark’s, but it’s not stable and broad declines have occurred

Indigo short in some regions. Our goal is to make sure the Eastern Hellbender never gets to the brink of extinction by reversing the declines that are already occurring. How could these declines happen? Hellbenders have been around for millions of years, surely they have faced a little adversity before, right? The short answer to that is - the world is changing and with that change comes threats to hellbender survival. Hellbenders need clean, cold, oxygenated water. The folds on their skin allow them to absorb oxygen directly from the water to breathe. If there are toxins in the water or not enough oxygen due to pollution,

they will be poisoned or suffocate. Another problem is soil erosion and siltation. Have you ever seen the brown plume in a river after a rainstorm? That’s all sediment that comes from the land where trees, grasses or shrubs have been removed. That sediment doesn’t just flow in the water, it eventually settles to the bottom. Remember how that hellbender crawled underneath that rock? Well, it needs a space to do that. Sediment fills the space and makes the underside of the rock like concrete. No spaces under rocks, no hellbenders. Dams could be major issues too, as they change how rivers flows and may trap aquatic salamanders into small popula-

tions that have no other place to go. And, finally, the hellbenders have a bit of a PR problem. Just read some of its nicknames: snot otter, devil dog, Allegheny alligator, mud devil, the list goes on and on. I personally think snot otter is a great name, but I wouldn’t call a good friend that! It goes beyond unflattering names. People often kill hellbenders that they come across. This is sometimes because they can look scary, but also because of some false myths. They are definitely not poisonous and have no way of causing any real harm to humans. They do not decimate fish populations – in fact, crayfish are by far their main food.

The Orianne Society becomes involved This variety of threats are

photo: Michael Freake

the reason hellbenders are starting to disappear – they just can’t deal with them all at once. The good news is, for the Eastern Hellbenders, conservation efforts have ramped up within the past 10 years. This work has encompassed activities such as inventory and monitoring to assess current status, local restoration of streamside habitat, studies to assess genetic diversity, captive breeding efforts, and artificial nest boxes to increase reproduction. As you can imagine, a number of people are needed to implement all of these activites, and there is now is a strong partnership focusing on Eastern Hellbender conservation. The Orianne Society became one of these partners in 2010. I ORIANNESOCIETY.ORG indigo short 2013 3

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photo: J.D. Willson

photo: Gabrielle Graeter

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Indigo short had started working for The Orianne Society the year prior, focusing on our Midget Faded Rattlesnake conservation program. But in addition to snakes, salamanders are a great passion of mine, and for some reason I tend to like the bigger ones. I did my master’s research on Tiger Salamanders (Ambystoma tigrinum), one of the biggest pond-breeding sala-

“This variety of threats are the reason the hellbenders are starting to disappear – they just can’t deal with them all at once.”

photo: North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission

manders, and did some work with Pacific Giant Salamanders (Dicamptodon species) while working on my doctorate. But the thing that most intrigued me about hellbenders was that they were completely aquatic, but yet don’t appear to move around a great deal (some adults can be found at the same rock year after year). This means that they can’t move around to escape bad habitat conditions. One of my skill sets is called “landscape genetics”. In a nutshell, landscape genetics compares patterns of landscape features with how closely related populations are to each other. The idea is if something is a barrier to movement between two populations, then the two populations will start to become more genetically distinct since they have no connections among them anymore. We can use landscape genetics, what aspects of the environment seem to be either allowing or limiting movement, and the amount of genetic diversity to test for things like inbreeding. ORIANNESOCIETY.ORG indigo short 2013 5

Indigo short I contacted a professor, Dr. Michael Freake, at Lee University in eastern Tennessee. He had already been conducting monitoring and genetic work in east Tennessee and had collected hellbender genetic samples from a number of rivers. Mike and I agreed to collaborate on some landscape genetic work with hellbenders. Since then, our initial findings have suggested that dams and agriculture may be limiting connections among hellbender populations. We didn’t see a big

loss in the amount of genetic diversity overall, but there was an exception of one stream that had become isolated and had lost a great deal of genetic diversity. Also during this time period, I became aware of an emerging technique that would strongly influence our current hellbender work.

Finding hellbenders with filter paper

In 2008, a study was released that demonstrated that DNA extracted from very small

photo: John Groves 6 ORIANNESOCIETY.ORG indigo short 2013

amounts of water could detect Bullfrogs (Lithobates catesbeianus) that had invaded wetlands in France. This method was termed aquatic environmental DNA, or often just eDNA for short. I remember hearing about this paper and thinking it was really interesting, but at the time I was preparing to work on rattlesnakes and wasn’t conducting any aquatic research, so I didn’t really think about it too much. However, my colleague Caren Goldberg at the University of Idaho (the

Indigo short institution where I have been based during my time with the Orianne Society) decided to use this method to detect Pacific Northwest stream amphibians. I was beginning the hellbender work with Mike at about the same time Caren was having success with eDNA in river systems. Now I did have a reason to implement eDNA work and began to have discussions with Mike about incorporating eDNA into our hellbender genetic work. Mike thought this was a good idea, and in fact, was part

of a team that had just received a Tennessee State Wildlife Grant that could help fund some of this work. We began a pilot study in the summer of 2011. Since this time, we successfully detected eDNA at all sites where we knew hellbenders occurred and identified new sites as well. You might be asking if we really need to go through the trouble to take a filtered water sample into the lab to just see if an animal is there. After all, can’t you just find it when you

are at the river? That’s a really good question. The reason eDNA is so exciting for hellbenders is that it’s not so straightforward to find them. So we’ve mentioned that hellbenders live under rocks. What I haven’t mentioned is that the rocks hellbenders live under tend to be really big. So to find them, we have to take a log peavey to pry up big rocks while someone snorkels under the rock to look for hellbenders (not to mention, fully trust that the rock won’t be dropped on them!). And what if a hellbender is un-


• The hellbender is the largest salamander by mass in North America, with the largest known individual almost 2 ½ feet. • Their closest relatives occur in China and Japan, and the group that includes hellbenders is more ancient than any other salamander, dating back 160 million years. • The Ozark Hellbender is the most endangered hellbender, with a nearly 80% population decline, and was added to the U.S. Endangered Species list in 2011. Many individuals are found with a mysterious condition that is causing limb deformities. • The major threat to hellbenders is the loss of clear, flowing rivers and streams, either due to siltation from soil erosion or inundation from dams. Other concerns include water pollution, disease, and human persecution.

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Indigo short der a rock that’s too big to lift? Furthermore, if the lifted rock isn’t placed down in the same way that it is lifted, it might not be as good as a hiding place for the individual. Suddenly, the non-invasive eDNA

method becomes more appealing. We are continuting to move forward with our hellbender conservation efforts. With the advances in eDNA as a survey tool, this is a very

If you encounter a hellbender, please do not disturb it as they are a protected species. Any hellbender caught on a fishing line should be released unharmed. Please report any sightings to a local conservation agency. 8 ORIANNESOCIETY.ORG indigo short 2013

exciting time for conducting research on aquatic animals, and we look forward to sharing more information and successes conserving Eastern Hellbenders with you soon!

photo: Pete Johantgen

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About Dr. Spear Dr. Stephen Spear is an Assistant Conservation Scientist with The Orianne Society, as well as a visiting scientist at the University of Idaho. He received his Ph.D. from Washington State University in 2009 and a M.S. degree from Idaho State University in 2004. Dr. Spear has been fascinated with reptiles and amphibians beginning as a child growing up in central Virginia, where he was constantly looking for snakes, frogs, and turtles around his house. He knew by high school that he would be a herpetologist. The goal of his research is to better understand what threatens reptiles and amphibians and to learn what we can do to conserve those populations. During his master’s research, he discovered the power of genetic tools to provide information about a species status and ecology, and he became one of first contributors to the field of landscape genetics (using genetic information to identify important environmental features that affect movement between populations and survival within populations). He studied Tiger Salamanders in Yellowstone, demonstrating that the large 1988 fires actually improved habitat for salamanders and also showed that drought was leading to population declines in the Yellowstone National Park. He worked with state, federal and industry partners to use genetic data to identify how different forest disturbances affected tailed frogs and Pacific Giant Salamander population size and connectivity in Washington and Idaho. Upon joining The Orianne Society, he embarked on research to identify important habitat for Midget Faded Rattlesnakes, a species of greatest conservation need in Wyoming and Colorado. This work produced accurate models of denning habitat that were immediately put to use by managers to protect these critical habitat features from energy development and other threats. Dr. Spear’s is currently involved in several conservation projects on both amphibians and reptiles. As detailed in this article, he is working with several partners and using innovative approaches to monitor and conserve Eastern Hellbender populations. Elsewhere in the southeast, he is using eDNA to monitor threatened Coastal Plain amphibians. He has used landscape genetics to identify threats to connectivity of Eastern Indigo Snakes across their range in Georgia, and recently helped develope the first list of Priority Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Areas (PARCAs) across the southeast. The identification of PARCAs will help The Orianne Society and its partners prioritize conservation efforts, as well as serve as flagship sites to draw public attention to the conservation needs of herpetofauna. In the western United States, he is a member of a working group dedicated to maintaining wildlife connectivity across the Pacific Northwest, and has served as the species expert for the western rattlesnake in this initiative. Finally, he is building a Bushmaster conservation program in Costa Rica and Panama that will serve as a foundation for future conservation actions for this iconic viper. In the future, Dr. Spear will continue his conservation work in the Coastal Plain and Appalachian Mountains of the southern United States, focusing on alleviating the effect of habitat degradation on populations, through identifying the exact threats and providing solutions to manage these threats. He has a track record of working with diverse partners to achieve these goals, and his work will continue to be highly collaborative so that his findings can be translated into conservation actions.

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Eastern hellbender Cryptobranchus alleganiensis

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10 ORIANNESOCIETY.ORG indigo short 2013 photo: Lori A. Williams


Saving the Snot Otter