Hellbenders

The Ozark HellbenderScientists are trying to save the Hellbender, one of the world’s largest salamanders. Hellbenders grow up to two feet long in cold, clear spring-fed Ozark streams. But hellbenders are disappearing from Ozark streams and rivers at an alarming rate, and scientists are at a loss for a cause. The hellbender populations have been threatened by stream impoundments, pollution and siltation for years, yet seemed to do OK in Missouri and Arkansas. However, over the past 10 years, due to unknown factors, the populations in the Ozark Mountains experienced a sudden decline of 70%.

The cold, oxygenated water of the White River’s North Fork holds some of the last remaining members of an amphibian family that has roamed this planet for 150 million years. The hellbender salamander has survived dinosaurs, tectonic shifts and multiple ice ages – only to nearly disappear in the time it took for bell-bottom jeans to come back in style.

“Back in the ’70s, on a day like today, we’d have gotten 100 hellbenders,” Solis said on this October day, “and today we got four.”

Just as disturbing as the salamander’s precipitous decline is the startling increase in abnormalities and deformed salamanders.

Stanley Trauth, a zoology professor at Arkansas State University, showed pictures of hellbenders with gruesome open sores, tumors and missing limbs and eyes. He said that nine out of 10 animals found in the Spring River this year had serious abnormalities, and he considered the animal extirpated from that stream.

Amphibians are especially susceptible to pollution and environmental contaminants, but scientists do not have any specific cause for this rash of deformities. Efforts are underway to save the species by establishing breeding colonies in zoos.

One of the more interesting programs is an attempt to teach captive young salamanders to hide in the presence of trout. Trout are an introduced species in Missouri and the juvenile salamanders make no attempt to avoid the predatory fish when they sense them in the stream. Salamander survival school.