Rarely seen hellbenders subject of ongoing investigation

Bob Frye
| Saturday, Aug. 3, 2013, 7:24 p.m.

The search for eastern hellbenders begins with a question followed by a heave.

“Who's diving?” someone asks, as four or five large guys prepare to reach down and grab one edge of a stream-bottom rock the size of a truck hood.

“Get skinny. Get friendly,” they're told as they crowd together.

Then, the countdown begins. “One, two, three,” the lifters chant, and with a lot of grunting and the occasional expletive, the rock is raised until it's upright, like a kitchen table on its side. The diver squirts in between their rigid legs — just nose, eyes and back sticking above the water, like a surfacing turtle — and starts feeling around. Two other people pin long-handled nets to the stream bottom at the rock's corners or hinges.

Sometimes, there's nothing to be found. In that case, the diver backs out of the way, and the rock is dropped, coming down less with a splash than a deep-bellied, plunging swoosh.

But sometimes, especially if the newly-exposed streambed is soft and squishy, a hellbender awaits.

That was the case this time.

“Check those nets. This ooze feels pretty good,” said Alysha Trexler, watershed scientist with the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.

Sure enough, when the nets were lifted, one contained a hellbender, an adult female almost 23 inches long and weighing about 2 34 pounds, a big specimen even for what is Pennsylvania's largest salamander.

“That's a hog. That's an amazing animal,” said Eric Chapman, the conservancy's director of aquatic science and leader of this crew.

It's also an animal that appears to be in trouble, though no one is sure to what degree or why.

The hellbender's range stretches from Georgia to New York and west into Missouri and Arkansas.

They're native to most Pennsylvania streams and rivers, though that wide distribution, coupled with a long-standing lack of money and manpower to study them, means that no one “has a good grasp” of how common they really are, said Chris Urban, chief of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission's natural diversity section.

That's nothing new. An article in the 1937 edition of “Pennsylvania Angler,” the commission's magazine, asked sportsmen to report “notes, measurements and stomach records” of hellbenders they encountered because “we know very little about this interesting inhabitant of our waters.”

Seventy-six years later, groups like the conservancy, operating in Indiana and Westmoreland counties and Allegheny National Forest, are working watershed by watershed to learn as much as possible, Urban said.

“It's a big rock we're trying to break. It's going to take years to do,” Urban said. “It's probably going to take 10 years to get our heads around it, and some would argue it's going to take longer than that.”

Whether the species has that long is the question.

“We're looking at an animal that throughout its range is in a great deal of trouble,” said Peter Petokas, a research associate with Lycoming College's Clean Water Institute who has been studying hellbenders in Northcentral Pennsylvania for eight years. “There are still places with good numbers of them. At most of those, there is still lots of reproduction going on. But at the sites where they're not doing so well, there's almost no reproduction.

“What you end up with is areas that either have a lot of them or have almost none of them.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is worried enough that it is considering listing eastern hellbenders as a federally threatened or endangered species.

Researchers in several states have collected hellbender eggs from the wild and raised them in zoos, with the idea of preserving the species for later release, Petokas said. He's hoping to supply the Bronx Zoo with Pennsylvania hellbender eggs this fall.

In the meantime, the work of studying this species goes on.

Chapman's crew weighs and measures every hellbender it finds. All get a pit tag in their tail, similar to the chip inserted into pets. That allows researchers with electronic scanners to tell whether they're seeing the same animals year after year or finding new ones.

Interns from Clarion University swab each for evidence of chytrid fungus, an infection some believe may be behind the hellbender's decline.

It's time consuming, labor intensive and physically demanding. Some crew members lift weights all year just to prepare for the huge rocks they'll encounter, Chapman said. All do stretching exercises before wading into the water.

It's important work, he said.

“Whenever you've got pollution or disease or a problem in your water, the first thing to disappear is the amphibians because everything goes through their skin. Hellbenders are the canary in the coal mine for our streams,” Chapman said.

Added Petokas: “They're an organism that has as much right to exist out there as we do. And if we're causing them to decline, we've got to be good stewards of our shared ecosystem and figure out what's wrong and solve that problem.”

Bob Frye is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at bfrye@tribweb.com or via Twitter @bobfryeoutdoors.

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