Friday, January 29, 2016

Into the Den of the Devil Dog: The Conclusion!

By Jim Godwin and Lesley de Souza,
      Read Part I Here.

    The herpetological collection at Auburn University contains the majority of Eastern Hellbenders from Alabama that have been deposited in research collections. Most of the specimens were collected during the 1960s and 70s. Since then few specimens have been collected and the few reports of Hellbenders that have come to light have come from incidental observations from aquatic biologists and the occasional animal found by recreational paddlers and fishermen. No recent biological surveys have documented the Eastern Hellbender in Alabama.

    In spring of 2014 an Eastern Hellbender was seen, captured, and photographed by a team of fisheries biologists in Cypress Creek in Lauderdale County. This sighting sparked a new interest to evaluate the status of the Eastern Hellbender in Alabama, which is the objective of the current project. To do this we have and will be surveying historical and new localities. Rare species are often very difficult to locate, an obvious statement and one that is well applied to the Eastern Hellbender in Alabama. In 2015, from May until September, locations in streams were searched for Hellbenders and water samples were taken. But it was not until the latter two weeks of September that a milestone was reached. During these weeks we assembled a cadre of volunteers and, floating the streams in canoes and kayaks, sampled eight streams and over 50 stream miles. Most of the streams had at least one historic hellbender record. Although all streams exhibited signs of water quality degradation all also had stretches of suitable appearing habitat, that is, stream runs with nice flat rocks and a substrate of gravel or cobble. 

    We put in long days on the streams and the big news came at the end of our first week of intense sampling. On a Friday when we were very near the end of a short float trip on the Flint River one last large rock was lifted and a large female Eastern Hellbender was discovered and captured by Tom Floyd of Georgia Department of Natural Resources. Tom has been working on Eastern Hellbenders in north Georgia and made the trip to Alabama to contribute his expertise on the species. Everyone within a 100 m radius likely heard the cries of excitement with the capture of this hellbender, and for those who had been searching all week there was no doubt as to the meaning of those yells; an excellent close to a full week of searching for the Devil Dog. Once we had the hellbender in hand everyone quickly gathered together to see the beast. As our little clot of biologists were standing in the river and examining the hellbender a couple kayakers came by. One slowed enough to investigate the source of excitement and upon seeing the hellbender a puzzled and bewildered look covered his face. His remark was that he had never seen a hellbender. Unfortunately this is a sad commentary on the knowledge level of nature within our society; having such incredible animals essentially in your backyard and not knowing about them.

    The significance of this find is that it provides official documentation that the Eastern Hellbender remains in Alabama, giving hope that the species may be found in other streams. Most records from the Flint River were from the late 1960s and from river stretches much further upstream, although one specimen was captured in 1999 yet vouchered only as a photograph. Our eDNA results will not be available for a few months and if we have positive results from this aspect of our work this will point us to streams in which to intensify our search efforts for next year.

    The Eastern Hellbender female we captured was weighed and measured, and we collected a tissue sample for DNA analysis as well as implanting a PIT tag for future identification. This work will continue through next year and the results we obtain will guide us in providing recommendations for the conservation and management of the Eastern Hellbender in Alabama.

    The following morning we returned to rescue our canoes but both were behind a fenced-off pasture with a locked gate. Not knowing the landowner we first stopped at the nearest house, a neat old frame dwelling with an arch over the drive with the name “Frost.” On the porch was an older white-haired woman shelling peas. The outer wall of the house behind her was decorated with farm implements and other artifacts. We introduced ourselves and stated our dilemma, requesting permission to have the gate unlocked and be allowed to cross the property. Her reply was that she was not the landowner (dang), but she knew the landowner and gave us his name and direction to his house (yah!). We thanked her and drove on. After a few turns we came to the landowner’s house. As we were pulling in he was driving out across a field from his bee hives. Still wearing his bee suit he stepped out of his truck and warmly welcomed us. After another round of introductions and stating our need he graciously offered to go back with us, open the gate and give us access to the boats. He even offered the use of a cabin on his property if we had a future need of it. This woman and man are good examples of solid country folk.

    We retrieved our canoes and gear without incident, but we did use a truck mounted winch to drag the water sample laden canoe up a near vertical 8 ft. bank; this was much easier than unloading all the gear and carrying it up the slope.

    Hellbender field work for 2015 has been completed. Results from field surveys are immediately known while lab work on water samples waits to be done. We expect the answers from our DNA analysis to be revealing but what secrets will the DNA yield? Will the DNA analysis direct our return to Big Nance Creek? These answers and more will be slowly revealed over the next few months.

Our hellbender work has been a group effort with support from agencies, organizations, and volunteers. We thank Auburn University, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Alabama A&M, Alabama Department of Environmental Management, Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Tennessee Aquarium, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Spencer Bradley, Josh Ennen, Cody Ewers, Thomas Floyd, Jeff Garner and his mother, Bill Gates, Jeff Goessling, Iwo Gross, Bernie Kuhajda, Cal Johnson, Heather Montgomery, Sara Piccolomini, Keith Ray, Lacy Rucker, Mark Sasser, Nick Sharp, Geoff Sorrell, Tyler Williams, Anna Perez-Umphrey.

Jim Godwin is an irregular contributor to Living Alongside Wildlife.

Lesley de Souza received her Ph.D. from Auburn University focused on Neotropical fishes, since then her work has centered on Arapaima research and conservation in Guyana. On-going studies on eDNA and conservation of the Black Warrior Waterdog, Flattened Musk Turtle, and Eastern Hellbender have kept her aquatically connected to the southeastern United States. Check out her website.

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