October 23, 2013 at 3:39 am #748MikeKeymaster
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
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
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-
“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
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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