HELPING THE HELLBENDER
Hiding beneath large rocks in the swift riffles of a clean and clear creek in Lycoming County, a wrinkled, almost flat creature crawls.
It’s the eastern hellbender and it’s waiting for its skittish dinner, the crayfish, to swim by.
Most people never have seen a hellbender. They do not live in every tributary of the Susquehanna River.
Instead, they choose their habitat based on the existence of their preferred cover – large rocks or boulders – and pristine swift water.
Hellbenders are the second largest salamander in the world. They often grow up to 2 feet in length and live some 30 years. Their range is from New York to Georgia and parts of the Midwest.
Studies have shown the animals have declined in numbers all over, especially in the Susquehanna River drainages.
For some time, Dr. Peter Petokas has been studying and assessing hellbenders and trying to ensure they are around for years to come.
Petokas is a research associate at Lycoming College and faculty member of Lock Haven University and involved with the Clean Water Institute. He met Chris Yearick, biologist with the Upper Susquehanna Coalition, along with some other like-minded biologists, and they have embarked on a new endeavor to help the eastern hellbender.
They have placed man-made hellbender nest boxes at sites throughout the county in an attempt to entice the big amphibians.
The goal of the nest box program is to attract hellbenders to lay eggs inside the structures.
The eggs will be collected and transported to the Bronx Zoo in New York City, where a “head-starting” program is in progress.
“Head-starting” means the eggs will hatch at the zoo and young hellbenders will be raised until they are too big to be considered an easy target. Then, they’ll be re-introduced into the wild.
The amphibians are unique creatures, which is enough of a reason for some people, like Yearick and Petokas, to pour their time and efforts into saving them. But, the hellbender plays another important role.
“They are like the canary in a coal mine. No other species in the system reacts the way they do,” Yearick said.
The hellbender serves as an indicator species, existing only in waters that are clean, swift and cool.
“We don’t know why they are declining. It’s a big problem throughout their range. If we can do head-starting study programs, we can give ourselves some time to find out why (there is a) decline and bring back some populations,” Petokas said.
Hellbenders’ main diet is crayfish. They pose no threat to game fish populations and actually can help get rid of some invasive species of crayfish found in area waters.
In early September, Petokas and Yearick spent seven hours at three study sites and installed the last four of 17 nest boxes.
The man-made nest boxes are constructed with a concrete and fiberglass mixture and weigh around 60 pounds. Facing downstream, the entrance tunnel allows females to enter to lay eggs and the males to come in and fertilize them.
Petokas and Yearick use snorkeling gear to scan the streams, looking for an ideal spot to place the nest box. They put down gravel that comes from the stream to make a flat surface and, once the box is placed, they cover it with heavy rocks, mimicking a hellbender’s favorite habitat.
A lid on the top enables each box to easily be checked for eggs without removing the boxes from the water.
“None of the 13 boxes installed previously contained resident hellbenders, despite having put an adult male in almost all of the boxes on the last visit,” Petokas said. “So, Chris and I inserted an adult male into each of the 17 boxes yesterday in the hope that some of them may remain there.”
While looking for suitable spots, the two also searched for, and caught, hellbenders. They determined the animals’ genders and examined the females to see if they were carrying eggs.
They found two.
“We found a cluster of eight to 10 eggs on the stream bottom at one site, but nowhere near a possible nest rock. These were likely dropped by a female moving about, possibly after having dropped off eggs beneath a rock somewhere. I’ve seen this occurrence before at this same site,” Petokas said.
Hellbenders typically begin to lay eggs around the beginning of September. They will disperse between 100 and 200 eggs, which will hatch in October. The young hellbenders will stay in the nest until spring, with the male guarding them.
At another site that day, Petokas said they found a resident male, or what is called a denmaster, beneath a large boulder, close to one of the nest boxes they placed.
“Outside the rock were several loose eggs, but we could not see beneath the rock. I set an underwater camera outside the rock to take a photograph every 15 minutes 24/7 until I return …,” he said.
The two plan to return to check the nest boxes, hoping to find eggs that they can put into an aerated cooler and transport right to the Bronx Zoo.
Currently, a head-starting program in Missouri is releasing hellbenders into the wild, Petokas said.
“There isn’t a guarantee they won’t disappear down the road. They are releasing thousands there, but do not know if it’s going to work,” he said.
The young that develop from eggs collected here will be released in New York and possibly back into Pennsylvania watersheds.