Salamanders in Missouri – 06/26/2005

  • October 23, 2013 at 3:39 am #748

    from arufon:

    Sunday, June 26, 2005 :: infoZine Staff :: page views
    Beleaguered Salamanders Now Plagued by Deformities
    By Jim Low – Missouri’s status as the only state with both subspecies
    of hellbender could be in jeopardy.

    Jefferson City, Mo. – infoZine – Pity the hellbender. For years, its
    numbers have been dwindling in the face of indiscriminate killing,
    illegal collecting and changes in the streams it inhabits. Even its
    love life has been affected. Now it faces a new tribulation, physical
    deformities. What’s an amphibian to do? This one is getting help from
    the conservation agencies.

    Missouri is the only state that has both hellbender subspecies-Ozark
    and Eastern. To the average person, they are indistinguishable. Both
    are endangered in Missouri. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is
    building a case for giving both federal endangered status.

    As recently as the 1960s, the Show-Me State had thriving populations
    of both varieties. The Eastern hellbender still inhabits Meramec,
    Big, Gasconade, Big Piney and Niangua rivers and the Osage Fork of
    the Osage River. The Ozark subspecies lives in the Current, Jacks
    Fork and Eleven Point rivers, the North Fork of the White River and
    Bryant Creek. However, since the 1970s, Eastern hellbender numbers
    have plummeted 80 percent. During the same period, Ozark hellbender
    numbers have declined by 70 percent.

    One of the biggest sources of concern about hellbenders is the
    failure of recent surveys to discover young specimens or other signs
    of reproduction. The species has practically disappeared from the
    streams it used to inhabit in Arkansas.

    No single factor is known to have caused these precipitous declines.
    Dam building took a toll as reservoirs covered cold, fast-moving
    waters that hellbenders require. Gravel mining in streams and other
    human activity on nearby land allowed gravel and mud to smother more
    of their habitat.

    Declining water quality may have played a role, too. Hellbenders
    absorb oxygen–and anything else in the water–through their skin.
    Their extra sensitivity to pollution makes them a “canary in the coal
    mine” for water quality.

    Increasing recreational use of the streams where hellbenders live
    also has increased pressure on the species. Anglers who accidentally
    hook hellbenders sometimes kill them unintentionally. The quadrupling
    of canoe traffic on some rivers increases disturbance of the rocky
    bottoms of Ozark streams. No one knows how this might be affecting
    the big amphibians.

    Deliberate damage is a problem. Illegal collection for food and
    medicine in overseas markets and for the pet trade has decimated
    hellbender numbers in some rivers. In other areas, dozens of
    hellbenders have been found dead on stream banks, apparent victims of
    human ignorance.

    Part of the hellbender’s problem is its appearance. They have
    wrinkled, mottled skin that varies from gray to brown. Tiny, dark
    eyes peer from the tops of their heads. They are huge compared to
    most salamanders. Adult hellbenders are one to two feet long. Jeff
    Briggler, a resource scientist for the Missouri Department of
    Conservation, sums up their overall appearance, saying, “They’re kind
    of gross.”

    Their unlovely appearance has led to all sorts of misconceptions. The
    most damaging is the mistaken belief that hellbenders have “poison
    spurs” on their legs and can inflict dangerous wounds.

    With such folk tales making the rounds, it’s no wonder that some
    anglers kill the hellbenders they catch. Briggler frequently sees
    mutilated specimens with wounds from fish gigs or fishing lines
    trailing from their mouths.

    The rationale often used to justify killing snapping turtles and
    other aquatic predators-that they eat game fish-won’t work for
    hellbenders. Their diet consists almost entirely of crayfish, minnows
    and other small animals. Besides, there are so few hellbenders, they
    couldn’t possibly have a significant effect on fish numbers.

    Briggler said it is impossible to mistake a hellbender for a fish. He
    says he suspects some are killed by people who want to see what they
    are but are afraid to touch them.

    “I know they look weird,” said Briggler, “but they are harmless.
    There is no good reason to kill them.”

    For most animals, losses of this kind would not be a problem. But
    hellbenders already are scarce, and they don’t seem to be producing
    young. If the adults currently living in Missouri streams die without
    reproducing, the species could be lost to the state.

    As if all this were not enough, now hellbenders must contend with
    what could be the final insult-physical deformities.

    Briggler says an alarming number of hellbenders he has seen in recent
    years have misshapen toes, legs or eyes. Some are missing appendages.
    Others have tumors or other abnormalities.

    The severity of the problem varies from stream to stream. In the
    Current River, three-quarters of all hellbenders have some kind of

    “This animal already has so much against it right now,” said
    Briggler. “These abnormalities could be the end of them.”

    The Conservation Department and the Fish and Wildlife Service have
    brought together other conservation agencies, universities and public
    zoos to form the Ozark Hellbender Working Group. Together, they are
    pursuing a bevy of projects to pinpoint the causes of hellbender
    decline and reverse it.

    The public has an important role to play in one of those efforts-
    population monitoring.

    “At this point, every sighting is important,” said Briggler. “If an
    angler hooks one and releases it, or if a gigger sees one, we would
    like to know about it. That kind of information is extremely helpful
    for keeping track of where these animals still live. I can’t tell you
    how grateful we are to people who take time to call in such

    He urged anyone who sees a hellbender to call him at 573/522-4115,
    ext. 3201. Several facts will help him make the most of each
    hellbender report. Most important is location. He suggests looking
    for landmarks, such as barns, bluffs or other permanent features. He
    also needs to know the date of the sighting and the approximate
    length of the hellbender. Photographs are helpful if they can be
    taken without keeping the animal out of the water more than a few

    Anglers who hook hellbenders can release them two ways. Removing the
    hook is best if the animal is not hooked deeply. Otherwise, the line
    should be cut and the hook left in place. Most animals released this
    way survive.

    Besides studying hellbenders intensively and investigating possible
    contributing factors in their decline, the Ozark Hellbender Working
    Group is trying to develop a captive breeding program. Young
    hellbenders raised at zoos or fish hatcheries could be used in
    research or to replenish wild stocks.

    “I am afraid that without artificial propagation the hellbender may
    not survive here,” said Briggler.

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