Nobody is sure why Cryptobranchus alleganiensis is in decline. Maybe part of the problem is bad public relations. Heaven knows the foot-long salamander's common name-- hellbender -- hasn't done it any good. But one man hopes to find out what's troubling the amazing animal with a colorful moniker, and he hopes to recruit Missouri anglers to help him.
Jeff Briggler is the Missouri Department of Conservation's staff herpetologist. Among his duties is keeping track of endangered reptiles and amphibians. The hellbender certainly fits this description.
Surveys conducted on these rivers show a dramatic decline in hellbender numbers in recent years. Since the 1970s, the Conservation Department has documented a 77 percent decrease in the animal's numbers.
One of the biggest sources of concern about the hellbender is the fact that recent surveys have failed to discover young specimens or other signs of reproduction. The species has practically disappeared from the streams it used to inhabit in Arkansas.
"If the few remaining adults are so scattered that they have trouble finding each other to mate, we could lose this animal from the Ozarks," said Briggler.
When hellbenders turn up at the end of anglers' lines, some people's first thought is to kill them. Field biologists looking for hellbenders often find mutilated specimens with fishing lines trailing from their mouths. They also see hellbenders that obviously have been gigged.
"I know they look weird the first time you see one," said Briggler, "but they are completely harmless. There just isn't any good reason to kill one."