Sunday, November 11, 2018

Limited-Edition Hellbender Art to Protect These Imperiled Amphibians -- New Foundation Partnership and Initiative --


Hey everyone I'm excited to announce a partnership between The Alongside Wildlife Foundation and one of my favorite artists: Logan Schmitt. Logan has created a limited edition Hellbender print and will be donating all of the proceeds directly to a brand new Hellbender conservation project in Tennessee. This project will help a population of these imperiled amphibians hold on while we learn more about the threats they face. Please keep reading this post to learn more about this important project and get yourself a print!


What Are We Doing?


We are raising funds to expand an existing Hellbender conservation project into an additional stream located in the Western Highland Rim of Tennessee. We hope this expansion will help stabilize the population in this stream while we work to understand why they are declining.


                                                    How Will We Do It?


We will install a series of nest boxes within a Tennessee stream to provide critical habitat the Hellbenders there urgently need for nesting areas and hiding spots. Then we will initiate a health assessment and monitoring program to better understand why the Hellbender population is in trouble.



Where is This Happening?


Hellbender populations inhabiting streams of middle Tennessee have experienced alarming declines over the past two decades. This project will occur in a small stream in the Western Highland Rim of Tennessee. Our target stream contains only large adult salamanders, an important clue that the Hellbender population is declining, probably because they are not reproducing successfully. Our conservation efforts will aim to bolster this population by improving the chances of reproduction as well as increasing the survival of hatchling Hellbenders.



Background


If I told you that a large salamander known colloquially as the “snot otter”, “Allegheny alligator”, “old lasagna-sides”, or “Hellbender” lived in the same streams where you swam and fished, you might never want to get in the water again, however, these animals are harmless to us and mostly eat crayfish. Hellbenders are quite impressive; they can get bigger than two feet long, making them the largest salamander in the New World, although they are smaller than the only other two species in the Cryptobranchidae family, the Chinese and Japanese Giant Salamanders. Hellbenders have been around for about 60 million years, but they are in trouble today.


Hellbenders once thrived in streams within the Ohio, Cumberland, and Mississippi river drainages of the eastern United States. Many of these rivers used to be well-oxygenated (great for Hellbenders, which use gills to breathe) and were surrounded by natural landscapes. Unfortunately, things like river damming, channelization, and land use change have now drastically altered these streams, driving hellbender populations down dramatically. There are other potential problems facing Hellbenders that we don’t know as much about, such as diseases like chytrid fungus and ranaviruses. The situation is so bad for Hellbenders that the Ozark subspecies is now protected by the Endangered Species Act and the eastern subspecies may not be far behind.

What can we do to protect remaining Hellbender populations and potentially resurrect declining populations? With funds generated from this print sale, we will initiate a two-phase project that we hope will allow Hellbenders to hold on at an imperiled site while producing information that will help us understand why they were declining there and elsewhere.

Phase 1: Dr. Jeff Briggler has dedicated a majority of his professional career protecting Hellbender populations (primarily in Missouri), and he has developed a unique approach to improve in-stream refuge and breeding habitat for Hellbenders. Dr. Briggler’s invention, which is known as a ‘bender box, is an in-stream, concrete structure that simulates Hellbender cover and breeding sites. These ‘bender boxes have been used successfully in a variety of stream environments to improve in-stream habitat and nesting success. Although researchers have used nest boxes in Tennessee before, they’ve only been placed in a few locations. Our goal is to deploy up to 20 Hellbender boxes in the western Highland Rim stream where we know Hellbenders are declining and where they need some help.

Phase 2: Even where Hellbenders are hanging on, researchers have noticed that they are experiencing a number of health problems including congenital abnormalities, pathogens, and harmful toxin concentrations. Unfortunately, we don’t know why. For a disease to affect an animal, three things need to happen: 1) A host that is susceptible 2) A pathogen or toxin that can infect or cause harm, and 3) An environment conducive to disease. To figure out what’s going on with Hellbenders that means we need to examine changes in Hellbender health, changes in the environment, and changes in pathogen presence. The ‘bender boxes we are installing in Phase One will help us monitor Hellbender health! We will use the lids on the boxes to peek in to see if there is anyone home - for every animal we find we will perform a thorough physical exam and take blood and skin samples to evaluate their health. While we are assessing their health, we will also be looking for changes in water quality and pathogen presence to see if we can tease out any patterns that can help explain why some of the salamanders are in poor health.



This Hellbender conservation project is an initiative of The Alongside Wildlife Foundation. Want to help us do even more to create and promote science-based solutions to living alongside wildlife in perpetuity? Please consider joining our growing network of recurring small donors here.

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