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The Center for North American Herpetology
11 July 2005
Kansas City Infozine (Missouri)
by Jim Low
Beleaguered Salamanders Now Plagued by Deformities
Jefferson City, Mo. - Pity the Hellbender. For years, its numbers have been
dwindling in the face of indiscriminate killing, illegal collecting, and
streams it inhabits. Even its love life has been affected. Now it faces a
tribulation, physical deformities. What's an amphibian to do? This one is
help from the conservation agencies.
Missouri is the only state that has both Hellbender subspecies [considered
most modern-day herpetologists to be distinct species] - Ozark and Eastern.
the average person, they are indistinguishable. Both are endangered in
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is building a case for giving both
endangered status. As recently as the 1960s, the Show-Me State had thriving
populations of both varieties. The Eastern Hellbender still inhabits
Gasconade, Big Piney and Niangua rivers and the Osage Fork of the Osage
The Ozark Hellbender lives in the Current, Jacks Fork and Eleven Point
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
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
Dam building took a toll as reservoirs covered cold, fast-moving waters that
hellbenders require. Gravel mining in streams and other human activity on
land allowed gravel and mud to smother more of their habitat. Declining
quality may have played a role, too. Hellbenders absorb oxygen--and anything
in the water--through their skin. Their extra sensitivity to pollution makes
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
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
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,
skin that varies from gray to brown. Tiny, dark eyes peer from the tops of
heads. They are huge compared to most salamanders. Adult Hellbenders are one
to two feet long. Jeff Briggler, [state herpetologist] for the Missouri
Department of Conservation, sums up their overall appearance, saying,
kind of gross." Their unlovely appearance has led to all sorts of
The most damaging is the mistaken belief that Hellbenders have "poison
on their legs and can inflict dangerous wounds. With such folk tales making
rounds, it's no wonder that some anglers kill the Hellbenders they catch.
frequently sees mutilated specimens with wounds from fish gigs or fishing
trailing from their mouths. The rationale often used to justify killing
turtles and other aquatic predators - that they eat game fish - won't work
Hellbenders. Their diet consists almost entirely of crayfish, minnows and
small animals. Besides, there are so few Hellbenders, they couldn't possibly
a significant effect on fish numbers.
Briggler said it is impossible to mistake a Hellbender for a fish. He says
suspects some are killed by people who want to see what they are but are
to touch them. "I know they look weird," said Briggler, "but they are
There is no good reason to kill them."
For most animals, losses of this kind would not be a problem. But
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
lost to the state. As if all this were not enough, now Hellbenders must
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
Current River, three-quarters of all Hellbenders have some kind of
"This animal already has so much against it right now," said Briggler.
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
Ozark Hellbender Working Group. Together, they are pursuing a bevy of
to pinpoint the causes of Hellbender decline and reverse it. The public has
important role to play in one of those efforts-population monitoring. "At
point, every sighting is important," said Briggler. "If an angler hooks one
releases it, or if a gigger sees one, we would like to know about it. That
information is extremely helpful for keeping track of where these animals
live. I can't tell you how grateful we are to people who take time to call
sightings." He urged anyone who sees a Hellbender to call him at
ext. 3201. Several facts will help him make the most of each Hellbender
Most important is location. He suggests looking for landmarks, such as
bluffs or other permanent features. He also needs to know the date of the
sighting and the approximate length of the hellbender. Photographs are
they can be taken without keeping the animal out of the water more than a
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
cut and the hook left in place. Most animals released this way survive.
Besides studying Hellbenders intensively and investigating possible
factors in their decline, the Ozark Hellbender Working Group is trying to
a captive breeding program. Young hellbenders raised-in-zoos or fish
could be used in research or to replenish wild stocks. "I am afraid that
artificial propagation the Hellbender may not survive here," said Briggler.
Cleveland Metroparks Zoo
216.661.6500 ext 4485
"Who hears the fishes when they cry?"
><)> -----Original Message-----
><)> From: owner-nanfa-l-in-nanfa.org
><)> [owner-nanfa-l-in-nanfa.org]On Behalf
><)> Of Derek Parr
><)> Sent: Tuesday, July 12, 2005 11:56 AM
><)> To: nanfa-l-in-nanfa.org
><)> Subject: Re: NANFA-L-- Contact-in-PA F&GC?
><)> well.. i'm still new here, so perhaps someone
><)> could explain to me what
><)> the issue is with with this aubject?
><)> Should the hellbenders be on the protected list in
><)> PA? Are their
><)> populations low or endangered there? Or is there
><)> some background story
><)> to this that I'm unaware of?
><)> -derek parr
><)> central NC
><)> Nick Zarlinga wrote:
><)> > OK, I am going to head this off-in-the pass.
><)> Todd, not that you in any way
><)> > suggested, but I would hope that all of us
><)> attending would agree that we are
><)> > not taking orders for hellbenders, right?
><)> Would we agree that although
><)> > they are not listed (here) that it would be
><)> irresponsible for us to collect
><)> > any, except under the most exceptional of
><)> circumstances? (And I do remember
><)> > our discussion on this topic a couple of years ago ;)
><)> > Nick Zarlinga
><)> > Aquarium Biologist
><)> > Cleveland Metroparks Zoo
><)> > 216.661.6500 ext 4485
><)> > "Who hears the fishes when they cry?"
><)> > Henry Thoreau--1817-1862
><)> > -----Original Message-----
><)> > From: owner-nanfa-l-in-nanfa.org
><)> [owner-nanfa-l-in-nanfa.org]On Behalf Of
><)> > Crail, Todd
><)> > Sent: Tuesday, July 12, 2005 9:45 AM
><)> > To: nanfa-l-in-nanfa.org
><)> > Subject: NANFA-L-- Contact-in-PA F&GC?
><)> > Howdy gang... I've been doing a little work
><)> preparing for our French Creek
><)> > outing. I haven't heard from Wally, so we'll
><)> probably not be able to count
><)> > on his guidance. But I think we can put
><)> together a really nice trip. I
><)> > found a website with photos of all the bridges
><)> crossing French Creek that
><)> > also has information about parking and in many
><)> cases, the way the stream
><)> > looks below the bridge. I may even go out and
><)> scout during the week next
><)> > week.
><)> > I've also scanned the offering of materials made
><)> by the PA Fish and Game
><)> > Commission to find out what is legal to take
><)> with a PA fishing liscence.
><)> > This is a little bit opposite of what I'm used
><)> to. I wondered if anyone had
><)> > a contact-in-the Commission who can affirm what
><)> I and others have read in
><)> > the regulations?
><)> > As someone mentioned before... It appears that
><)> we can have two, non-state
><)> > listed, amphibians (which includes hellbenders)
><)> in our possession per
><)> > liscence, and up to 50 live mussels (which I
><)> assume applies for the relicts
><)> > I would actually like to collect) besides the
><)> two species on the Fed list
><)> > (which you _really_ don't want in your
><)> possession, dead or alive).
><)> > On the other hand, we can only use a 4' seine to
><)> try and view all the
><)> > showboat state listed darters we just want to
><)> take a look at, photograph and
><)> > send back on their way. I should have applied
><)> for a Science and Education
><)> > Permit, but hindsight is 20/20, and they need 15
><)> days to process, and my
><)> > advisor is going to want to see other documents
><)> in my hand for his perusal,
><)> > if you know what I mean ;)
><)> > So I'm thinking dip nets and/or snorkeling are
><)> going to be key on this
><)> > trip... Will work very well for the bluebreast,
><)> tippecanoe, variegate (not
><)> > listed btw) and the madtoms. Might get lucky
><)> and catch a spotted, longhead
><)> > or gilt that way (I've caught spotted with
><)> dipnet, but not reliably).
><)> > Todd
><)> > The Muddy Maumee Madness, Toledo, OH
><)> > It's never too late to have a happy childhood.
><)> > http://www.farmertodd.com <http://www.farmertodd.com>
><)> / This is the discussion list of the North
><)> American Native Fishes
><)> / Association (NANFA). Comments made on this list
><)> do not necessarily
><)> / reflect the beliefs or goals of NANFA. For more
><)> information about NANFA,
><)> / visit http://www.nanfa.org Please make sure all
><)> posts to nanfa-l are
><)> / consistent with the guidelines as per
><)> / http://www.nanfa.org/guidelines.shtml To
><)> subscribe, unsubscribe, or get
><)> / help, visit the NANFA email list home page and archive at
><)> / http://www.nanfa.org/email.shtml
/ This is the discussion list of the North American Native Fishes
/ Association (NANFA). Comments made on this list do not necessarily
/ reflect the beliefs or goals of NANFA. For more information about NANFA,
/ visit http://www.nanfa.org Please make sure all posts to nanfa-l are
/ consistent with the guidelines as per
/ http://www.nanfa.org/guidelines.shtml To subscribe, unsubscribe, or get
/ help, visit the NANFA email list home page and archive at