The population of North America's largest salamander is plummeting in Missouri and Arkansas, and scientists from five states met to consider how to prevent the creature's disappearance.
ST. LOUIS − The population of North America's largest salamander is plummeting in Missouri and Arkansas, and scientists from five states met to consider how to prevent the creature's disappearance.
About 35 members of the Hellbender Working Group met for meetings at the St. Louis Zoo last week to review research and plans for helping prevent the extinction of the 2-foot-long salamander, which lives in a few cold, spring-fed Ozark streams.
Stanley Trauth, a zoology professor at Arkansas State University, showed pictures of hellbenders with open sores, tumors and missing limbs and eyes. He said that nine out of 10 animals found in the Spring River this year had serious abnormalities.
"I'm at a loss, folks," Trauth said. "We just don't have a good explanation for what's causing this."
Max Nickerson of the University of Florida, who has worked with hellbenders for three decades, said his early research did not find nearly as many abnormalities. He called the new results baffling.
Researchers say it was easy to find 100 hellbenders in a day in the 1970s and 1980s; now they are lucky to find a few.
Biologists believe that many factors may have hurt the hellbender, including logging, gravel mining, sewage plant effluent, agricultural runoff, introduction of trout, disturbance from boaters, poaching, deliberate killing and scientific collection.
One researcher found evidence that hellbenders fare poorly in streams with lots of plants growing out of the water and slowing down the current.
Others are looking at water quality issues, including the possible influence of endocrine-disrupting chemicals on hellbender reproduction.
Another research project involves the effect of trout, which are not native to Missouri. Alicia Mathis, a behavioral ecology professor at Southwestern Missouri State University in Springfield, found that young Missouri hellbenders do not recognize trout as a predator.
Mathis is teaching some of the 150 young hellbenders being reared in tanks at the Zoo to freeze when they smell trout in the water.
If the project works, the schooled youngsters could be released into the wild with less chance of being eaten.
"It could be a shot in the arm, for a population that really needs a shot in the arm," she said.
Source: Associated Press