Friday, May 20, 2011

Hellbent on the Greenbrier River

This past week TMI staff joined Joe Greathouse of the Good Zoo in Wheeling, WV, to scour the West Fork of the Greenbrier River for Eastern Hellbenders. Melinda Brooks, at right, is holding the one we found on the cold and rainy day.

We first tried the Shavers Fork of the Cheat River and the East Fork of the Greenbrier, but water levels were too high in both, so we ended up in the West Fork, walking through the river, flipping over large rocks, and blindly feeling around for the slippery critters. We grabbed two that slid away before we were able to coax this one into a net.

Eastern Hellbenders are the largest salamander in North America and are thought to live as long as seventy years. The one Melinda is holding is twenty-one inches long! They are found throughout southern and central Appalachia and as far west as Oklahoma and Kansas. Like all amphibians, hellbenders are an indicator species - one that is particularly sensitive to pollution. In many places, their numbers are declining.

After we caught this guy, Joe and his crew measured it (the gender is difficult to determine outside of breeding season), took a blood sample, and induced vomiting to see what it had been eating (this guy had two or three crayfish in his belly). In addition to counting hellbenders, Joe is studying the effects that climate change has on the creatures.

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