Hunting for Hellbenders

Day 3 from photographer Neil Ever Osborne's trek across Pennsylvania for the Chesapeake Bay RAVE.

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Eastern Hellbender Salamander or Giant Salamander (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis) eating a crayfish.

Have you ever seen this critter before? I had not. I also did not know where to find them but their mystic was enough to intrigue me to look. During the Chesapeake Bay RAVE, collaborations with local experts and people on the ground were essential. This seems like a common thread with conservation projects these days and so through Chesapeake Bay Foundation communications guru Kelly Donaldson I was able to reach out to Dr. Peter Petokas of Lycoming College to assist me with a photo shoot with the amphibian he knows so well.

Eastern Hellbender Salamanders can grow to more than 25 inches in length, making them the third largest aquatic salamander species in the world. They really are that big. I wanted photographs of the giant salamander to introduce this amazing animal to those who had never seen one. What role they play in the Chesapeake Bay watershed might not be as clear as with other aquatic wildlife but they certainly maintain a balance in the crayfish numbers, eating them frequently with a suction feeding behavior.

Other names for this wicked looking creature are snot otter, devil dog, mud-devil, grampus, the Allegheny alligator, leverian water newt, and vulgo. But, to me they are not that ugly. Some people say the name Hellbender comes from their odd appearance. Under the water, they have the unassuming appearance of rocks, though this did not stop us from finding them. With Petokas at hand, we were able to photograph five Hellbenders in their natural setting.

I have my fingers crossed that one of my Hellbender images ends up in the 30-image action exhibit that premieres this September on Capital Hill*. iLCP and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation are using the images this RAVE creates to facilitate news coverage of the urgency of the Chesapeake Clean Water and Ecosystem Act to speed the restoration of the Bay's health and protect it over the long term.

I was also able to ask Dr. Peter Petokas a few questions during our time together and he had these few comments:

Q: Why do you study the Hellbender?

A: I began to study the Hellbender out of curiosity, what it was, where it was, and how well the species was doing, since no one seemed to know the answers to these things. We've since learned an amazing amount of new information about this animal and I hope to continue my studies as long as I am able. It's not pretty and it doesn't entertain us with interesting behaviors, but it is an intriguing animal, very secretive, difficult to access, and a key predator on stream crayfish. Having documented migrations of up to five miles, this creature defies what we think we know about salamanders.

Q: How important is the Hellbender to the Chesapeake watershed?

A: We've lost so much of the value of our watersheds through resource extraction and habitat degradation, that the Hellbender is now in jeopardy of complete extirpation. Along with the Bald Eagle the American Shad, the Hellbender is a poster child for everything that we've done wrong in the watershed. We've mismanaged the Susquehanna River Basin for over 200 years and it will never return to the pristine state when Bald Eagles, Mountain Lions, and Hellbenders were important keystone predators in the food chain. We're working to return long lost species such as Shad and Eels to the West Branch, but the Hellbender hasn't been eliminated yet and I'm working hard to ensure that existing populations remain viable with the ultimate goal of reintroducing Hellbenders to previously-occupied streams.

Q: You have a ritual of taking a photo of each student you work with holding a Hellbender, why?

A: A cameo shot is taken of each person who works with me to document their participation and for use on their personal web pages. I'm working on a Powerpoint presentation of the approximately 100 cameo photos that I have and will convert it to a Quicktime video, sequencing through photos of elementary and high school students and teachers, undergraduate students and professors, graduate students, ecologists, researchers, and other folks who have worked with me. I've even had students and teachers visit here from Japan to learn about Hellbenders.

Q: Are the populations of Hellbenders in the Chesapeake watershed doing well?

A: This animal is so difficult to study that it has taken me six years to discover that the Hellbender is in serious jeopardy of disappearing from the Susquehanna River Basin. It was once thought to be widespread throughout the basin, but today it appears to be restricted to just three tributaries of the Susquehanna River. Most populations in the West Branch were lost many years ago due to abandoned mine drainage. We've lost two other West Branch populations since 2006, one due to a Sodium Hydroxide spill and another due to rapid die-off from unknown causes. Several Main Stem populations have disappeared since the early to mid-1990's. I only hope that the three extant populations in the West Branch will remain healthy and not succumb to disease or the kinds of environmental disasters that occurred in the past.

- Neil Ever Osborne

* Thirty of the hundreds of photographs collected by iLCP photographers during the RAVE will be on exhibit in the Capital Rotunda September 20 - October 1.

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