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Beleaguered salamanders now plagued by deformities

Thursday, July 7, 2005

Missouri's status as only state with both hellbender subspecies in jeopardy

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 deformity.

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

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 sightings."

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 seconds.

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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