Bender Blog

Kim Terrell

Kim Terrell, an SCBI wildlife biologist and David H. Smith Conservation Research Fellow, led a team of scientists in conducting hellbender field work this year as a complement to her hellbender lab research. (Photo courtesy of Jeff Story)

The National Zoo’s 2012 hellbender field season was a wild one! We had a high-energy mix of scientists, zoo keepers and volunteers in the field crew this year, including:

Lauren Augustine, Barbara Watkins, Rick Quintero and Matt Evans from the National Zoo’s Reptile Discovery Center.

Brian Gratwicke, amphibian biologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.

Brad Nissen, an intern in our Amphibian Research and Husbandry Program.

Dan Nissen, a retired hydrologist from the VA Dept of Environmental Quality (and Brad’s dad!).

Jeff Storey, a wildlife photographer and strongman (seriously – he plays in the Highland Games!).

Zoe Hore, a student from Newcastle, England (she wins the award for having traveled the farthest to get slimed by a hellbender).

JD Kleopfer, a biologist for the VA Dept of Game and Inland Fisheries and overall herpetological guru.

Altogether, our team put in about 400 hours of survey work and caught more than 100 hellbenders from nine different streams in Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York and Seneca Indian Territory. Every hellbender was released safely, all the samples made it back to the lab, and the crew survived without a single case of poison ivy (impressive, since during one trip I inadvertently set up the mobile lab in a clearing infested with hundreds of little tiny poison ivy sprouts). Below are a couple of highlights from our adventure-filled summer.

Virginia – June 2012

We began our season in the rolling hills of southwest Virginia (locations are undisclosed due to poaching risk). During the first three straight days of survey work, the crew had been bumped, bruised, drenched, pooped on, stung, pinched, covered in sweat, and driven to extreme mental frustration. We had conducted a completely unsuccessful night survey (hellbenders are nocturnal, after all) and had stayed up into the wee morning hours making emergency repairs on broken field equipment. We even woke up early one morning to trek up a mountain and visit a timber rattlesnake den (gotta love working with herpetologists!). After all this, any normal human would be ready to call it quits. Fortunately, my team of bionic super-humans lives for this kind of stuff.

Hellbender search

Catching hellbenders--which are covered in a protective mucus--is tricky and involves overturning large, heavy rocks. (Photo by Lauren Augustine, National Zoo)

We woke up refreshed and ready for our fourth and final day of surveys in Virginia. We had been pretty successful in finding hellbenders thus far and had already collected our minimum number of samples, so we decided to try a new stream. Earlier in the trip I had struck up a conversation with a guy hanging out of a pickup truck in a Food City parking lot. He had seen the realistic hellbender model that I keep on the van dashboard and wanted to know where I got it (and, I think, whether it was taxidermied). He mentioned that he had some buddies who had caught some ‘benders at a fishing hole up the road, so we decided to check it out. But when we got there I started to have some doubts. Many of the big rocks were too embedded for anything to live under, and I started to feel like turning over each rock was just a formality before we could call it quits. There was no official record of hellbenders in this creek, and we were a good ways downstream from the fishing hole (which turned out to be just across the border into Tennessee, where I didn’t have a survey permit). But just when I was feeling like this was a complete waste of time, I reached under a rock and felt the soft, familiar squish of a hellbender. Yes!!! This catch was a big deal – it represented a new official record of a hellbender population in a state where the species has a very limited distribution. This kind of information is especially important right now because the Fish and Wildlife Service is considering this subspecies of hellbender (the eastern) as a candidate for endangered species listing. Knowing where a species occurs is the first step towards assessing its extinction risk. After another hour of searching we caught a second adult (a big fat one!) and a little juvenile. I couldn’t have imagined a better outcome – we found what appeared to be a high-density population with evidence of successful reproduction at a whole new site. What a fabulous way to end the trip!

Pennsylvania – July 2012

Back on the road again! This time we were tagging along on someone else’s surveys (which meant I got to focus on the science instead of the planning and logistics – woo-hoo!).  The surveys were led by Eric Chapman from Western PA Conservancy, and he was accompanied by a large, incredibly enthusiastic field crew. Let’s just say that you don’t want to be a sociophobic hellbender in one of his streams. I was absolutely astounded by how quickly they worked and the size of the rocks they managed to lift. I had barely finished taking blood and skin swab samples from one hellbender when Eric’s team wrestled a second one into the net. At several points he had to tell them to stop and take a break because I couldn’t keep up. I was working quickly to try and get a blood sample within three minutes of capture, and in most cases we met this goal. That’s pretty good when you consider that we had to carry the hellbender back to our equipment, glove up, and roll its squirmy, slimy body into a wet towel (think hellbender burrito) before we could draw blood from the tail.

Hellbender crew

The researchers caught more than 100 salamanders in nine streams. (Photo courtesy of Jeff Story)

While I prepared the blood for freezing, Kurt Regester (a researcher from Clarion University) took samples to test for rana virus and chytrid fungus – two very lethal diseases in amphibians. Next, one of our field techs rubbed the skin with a special Q-tip to look for ‘good’ bacteria that might help protect the hellbender from disease (part of a study led by Andy Loudon from James Madison University). Lastly, Eric marked it with a microchip, the same kind the vet puts in your dog or cat. The chip allows him to identify individual hellbenders and to estimate the size of the population based on how often they’re recaptured. We’re definitely learning as much as possible about each hellbender we find. This winter I’ll be analyzing all of the frozen blood samples to determine how climate change and stream water quality impact hellbender health.

By the end of our first day in Pennsylvania, I was wiped. We’d caught an astounding 16 hellbenders (a new record for me) and a mudpuppy (bonus!).  Unbelievably, we had several other trips throughout the summer that were just as successful. But we also surveyed several sites where the hellbender populations didn’t appear to be reproducing (indicated by a complete absence of young animals). For a long-lived, slow-growing species like the hellbender, reproductive failure can be the first signpost on a path leading to extinction. I’m hopeful that our efforts, along with those of our state, university and NGO partners, can help determine why hellbenders are disappearing from certain areas and what we can do to protect a species that has roamed the earth since the time of the dinosaurs.

For additional updates, check out Kim’s blog on the National Zoo’s site.

Kim Terrell, Smithsonian’s National Zoo

Glee club candidate.

Quito rain-peeper (Pristimantis unistrigatus)

Quito rain-peeper (Pristimantis unistrigatus)

Cute Frog of the Week: Sept. 24, 2012

Found all throughout Peru, Columbia, and most notably, Quito, this noisy frog is well renowned for its vocal talents. During the rainy season, these frogs will vocalize throughout the night to attract mates. This species is also known to be highly adaptable. Found anywhere from the Andean cloud forests to the urban streets of Quito, the rain-peeper is a well-known frog in the area.

Though there are several sub-species of rain-peepers, the Quito is the most abundant.  At the current time the species is listed as a least concern by the IUCN.

Photo by Alejandro Arteaga via Flickr.

Every week the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project posts a new photo of a cute frog from anywhere in the world with an interesting, fun and unique story to tell. Be sure to check back every Monday for the latest addition.

Send us your own cute frogs by uploading your photos here:

Is it Halloween yet?

Bicolored frog (Clinotarsus curtipes)

Bicolored frog (Clinotarsus curtipes)

Cute Frog of the Week: Monday, Sept. 17

Perfect for pumpkin season, the bicolored frog’s color coordinates with hues of the holiday of haunts and boos. While cute, the bicolored frog looks like a caped villain with red ringed eyes. Its back is covered in burnt orange or light brown, while its belly is dark brown. This dual display of color gives the frog its name.

Bicolored frogs are found in forests throughout the Western Ghats, a mountain range in India. While inhabiting a large range, the species’ numbers are declining. Its habitat is razed to make way for large plantations. It is also in danger of road deaths during its breeding season when it migrates to breeding areas. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists it as near threatened and India is setting the stage for recovery efforts by listing it as a protected species. While subject to risks of human activity, bicolored frogs evade predators by playing dead!

Photo by L. Shyamal Shyamal.

Every week the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project posts a new photo of a cute frog from anywhere in the world with an interesting, fun and unique story to tell. Be sure to check back every Monday for the latest addition.

Send us your own cute frogs by uploading your photos here:

Candy cane frog.

Phantasmal poison frog (Epipedobates tricolor)

Phantasmal poison frog (Epipedobates tricolor)

Cute Frog of the Week: September 10, 2012

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, step right up to see one of the world’s most astounding sights! This phantasmal poison frog is a vision. With red and white stripes, the frog dazzles the eyes like a circus tent. Don’t forget to peek underneath! The belly of this frog is swirled with the same red and white colors. But don’t get too close. The bright red signals danger! This frog secretes a toxin through the skin as protection against predators. Listen closely in the morning hours, and you might hear an advertising chirp or call from this amphibian.

Take a long look at this endangered amphibian; it may be your only chance to see it. This frog’s home in Ecuador is being taken over. Excessive development and logging are destroying the forests in the Bolivar Province, while the rivers are being poisoned by pesticides and pollutants. These factors make it one tough life for a frog. Even if this amazing frog survives these problems, the chytrid fungus could still devastate populations. The IUCN lists the phantasmal poison frog as endangered. To curb intentional deaths, trade of this fantastic frog is regulated under Appendix II in CITES.

Photo by Deepinon.

Every week the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project posts a new photo of a cute frog from anywhere in the world with an interesting, fun and unique story to tell. Be sure to check back every Monday for the latest addition.

Send us your own cute frogs by uploading your photos here:

Cascade frog

Cascade frog (Rana cascadae)

Cascades frog (Rana cascadae)

Cute Frog of the Week: Sept. 3, 2012

Named after the Cascades region in the northwestern United States, the Cascades frog is a treat to see.  Its markings can look suspiciously similar to a famous speckled feline. With a green or golden skin and small black ringed markings, some could call this species cheetalicious! The Cascades frog doesn’t growl or purr, however. Instead, it makes a low clucking sound day and night.

But that serenade may end soon. This spotted frog is in serious trouble! Typically found in mountainous open wetlands and meadows, its home is being destroyed by housing development and fire suppression allows trees to encroach on their habitat. Population declines from habitat loss and invasive species has made the Cascades frog a species of concern in California and Washington. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists this species as near threatened.

Photo by Walter Siegmund.

Every week the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project posts a new photo of a cute frog from anywhere in the world with an interesting, fun and unique story to tell. Be sure to check back every Monday for the latest addition.

Send us your own cute frogs by uploading your photos here: