Ohio's Largest Amphibian in Danger of Statewide ... - WordPress.com


Feb 22, 2014 (3 years and 3 months ago)


Zachary Lloyd

Ohio’s Largest Amphibian in Danger of Statewide Extinction

The hellbender salamander finds hope in one herpetologist

A rarely seen river monster lies calmly in wait of food under the large, flat rocks of
eastern American streams. Known to some as the giant
hellbender, and others as
the Allegheny alligator, this two foot long salamander is one of Ohio’s most


and the largest amphibian in the country
. It is also in need of help. All but
eliminated from Ohio, hellbender salamander populations have suffered over
the past
century due to the degrad
ation of their
habitats. Freelance h
Greg Lipps
is working hard to save the species from statewide extinction, but he said, “Unless more
action is taken soon, these populations are doomed.”

Numerous reports from residents of Athens County and students of Ohio University in
the past speak of
seeing hellbender salamanders in the Hocking River when it ran through
OU’s campus. This is a phenomenon that may never be witnessed again. The last
recorded instance of the species in the river occurred in 1963 when a hellbender was
found somewhere betwee
n Armitage and Athens.

Lipps performed a 2006 survey of

hellbender distribution in Ohio and found
the majority of the state’s populations contained no juveniles or other signs of
successful reproduction. Only one population in the entir
e state contained young
individuals, which caused much concern over the species’ future in Ohio. The eastern
hellbender is a completely aquatic, carnivorous species that has historically been found in
many of the waterways draining to the Ohio River. Its p
referred habitat is quick
streams containing little sediment and large boulders. Molly Gurien, lecturer of biology at
Ohio University said,
“Amphibians can breathe through the
ir lungs, but mostly respire
through capillaries in their skin,” which means
the stream must not contain much
sedimentation that reduces the water’s oxygen levels.

The billowy flaps of skin on the
hellbender’s sides contain most of the capillaries that capture oxygen as they flap in t

Large, flat rocks are where the hellbender makes it nest and spends most of its time
during the day
guarding its eggs or relaxing in the c
ool water. It is most active at
night when it leaves the nest to hunt for crayfish or other meaty
prey. The hellbender also
exhibits a remarkable lifespan known to live, “at least 50 to 60 years, likely up to 100
years,” said Ohio University’s resident herpetologist Dr. Scott Moody.

However, the hellbender’s preferred habitat is hard to come by today i
n Ohio. Many of
the streams the animal used to call home are now
full of silt and sediment due to erosion
and this is thought to be the leading cause of population decline. Hellbender
conservationist Greg Lipps said, “We know that problems with reproductio
n are the
mechanisms of population decline, though we’re not exactly sure why.” One possible
theory proposes that hellbender larvae and eggs are unable to gain enough oxygen to
survive as the sediment that buries nesting sites smothers them.

In his 1981 b
The Fishes of Ohio
, Ohio State University Emeritus Professor of
Zoology Milton Trautman outlines the historical degradation of Ohio watersheds. There
is overwhelming evidence that suggests that the majority of the state was covered in
forest, marshes,

prairies and pristine rivers in the time before white settlement. Trautman
states, “Before 1800 the streams presented a far different appearance than they did after
1900,” and that not until after 1800 did settlers begin to become concerned about the
mentation of the rivers.

From the late 19

to early 20

centuries Ohio’s population g
rew to over four million
, and with them increased the amount of land used for agricultura
l and industrial
purposes. Nearl
y 16 million acres of Ohio country was
deforested or turned into
farmland. “If you ever see pictures of 1900’s Athens and Hocking Counties
, it looks like
Hiroshima… hardly a tree in sight,” said Moody. Due to this lack of vegetation much of
the rich topsoil was exposed to erosion and carried
into the rivers, burying the aquatic
life’s precious habitat under layers of dirt.

Into the early 20

century erosion continued to strip the barren hillsides of southeastern
Ohio and coal deposits were exposed. Mining increased heavily, especially in
County, and polluted drainage from the mines also began to enter the streams, killing
many life forms and making entire watersheds unfit for habitation. The Great Depression
meant an end for many of the mines and farms that were plaguing southeaster
n Ohio
rivers, but by this time many of the affected waters were too far degraded. “It’s going to
take a long time, minimally a thousand years, as far as seeing the Hocking River flowing
with clean water again,” Moody said.

Ralph Pfingsten’s 1989 publicat
Salamanders of Ohio
, describes a statewide survey
he conducted to determine the status and distribution of the species. No populations were
found to contain juvenile specimens which corroborated the theory that sedimentation
and pollution were negatively affecting hellbender

reproduction. After the results of
Pfingsten’s survey, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources listed the eastern
hellbender as a state
endangered species, making it illegal to remove, capture, kill or
harass the animals. However, hellbender hero Greg Li
pps felt the need for a follow up
survey and conducted one himself in 2006 after receiving a grant from the Ohio Division
of Wildlife. The new study showed an 82 per
cent decline in Ohio
populations since 1989.

Lipps’ studies also yielded exciting
ion when he discovered a successfully
reproducing hellbender population in Belmont County’s Captina Creek.

However, the creek is not only home to Ohio’s last stable hellbender population, but also
Murray Energy Corporation’s American Century coal mine. T
he American Century mine
has been responsible for spilling coal slurry

a water
based byproduct of a coal
process that contains multiple highly toxic components

at least four times in the past
decade. Captina Creek has been deemed an Aquatic Resourc
e of National Importance
(ARNI) by the Environmental Protection Agency and has thus gained some protection
from the mine’s hazardous practices. Murray Energy was denied a 2008 permit to expand
its coal slurry impoundment lots by the Ohio EPA and has since

another proposal.
Hopefully the EPA will continue to reject these proposals for the sake of Captina Creek
and the future of Ohio’s hellbenders.

Lipp’s current hellbender conservation work is perhaps even more exciting than his
findings at Captina C
reek. Working in collaboration with the Columbus Zoo, Lipps began
a repatriation program in 2011 with the goal of introducing hellbenders into the Ohio
wild. Intensive preparation work had to be done in determining possible locations for
reintroduction thr
water quality analyses as well as testing the specimens for
suitability. The Columbus Zoo collected eggs from populations found in West Virginia,
which are determined to be compatible in Ohio environments. Lipps said, “I have pretty
good confidence in

the program. We have 10 animals that we will be tracking with
transmitters to analyze the effectiveness of the repatriation.” Lipps also said that if the
project was a success, then the program is something that could possibly be applied
throughout the st
ate, hopefully creating a resurgence of the species in Ohio.

The 10 hellbenders will be released
in mid
June of this year; however, Lipps was hesitant
to reveal the exact location of the stream chosen for
repatriation. His worry was of
attracting unwanted

attention to the site from recreational hellbender hunters that could
pose a threat to this very important and fragile population. He did hint that the site was an
eastern Ohio stream that was heavily affected by acid mine drainage in the 1960’s and

The site has recently been remediated and is described as being a very clean and
suitable spot for the salamanders.

The giant hellbender’s future is looking ever brighter as more conservation efforts and
attention are turned its way, and only through ed
ucation and action can the people of
Ohio save one of its
coolest and most tenuous species.