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Conserving the Eastern Hellbender in Tennessee
by Bill Reeves and Mary Pfaffko
Photo Credit: Brian Gratwicke
A partnership fueled by State Wildlife Grants has sparked innovations in on-the-ground conservation to secure a future for a giant salamander found in clear, cold mountain streams in Tennessee. In March 2013, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and the Tennessee Hellbender Recovery Partnership were presented with a State Wildlife Action Plan Partnership Award in recognition of their outstanding leadership in eastern hellbender conservation, and efforts to prevent the subspecies from becoming endangered.
In fall 2011, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) listed the Ozark hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis bishopi), one of the two North American subspecies of hellbender, as federally endangered after the subspecies experienced precipitous declines following the 1970s. The other subspecies of hellbender, the eastern hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis alleganiensis) has also experienced declines throughout much of its range, prompting the Service to evaluate whether it may also warrant listing. Both subspecies were added to Appendix III of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) as a way to curb unauthorized international trade. These two subspecies are North America's contribution to the world's giant salamanders. Only two others exist, the Japanese (Andrias japonicas) and Chinese (Andrias davidianus) giant salamanders, and all are in trouble—threatened by man's activities.
With the eastern hellbender's federal status under review, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) looked to assess the status of hellbenders in Tennessee. At the time, its status was believed to be as precarious as its cousin in the Ozarks, but the data were not available to support this assumption. Local hellbender experts were enlisted to help develop projects to determine whether Endangered Species Act (ESA) protection was needed. The experts included Dr. Brian Miller, a professor at Middle Tennessee State University, Dale McGinnity, curator of ectotherms at the Nashville Zoo, and Dr. Michael Freake, a professor at Lee University in Cleveland. Their extensive knowledge, experience, and passion for hellbender conservation informed a number of TWRA projects that would produce the data needed to adequately contribute to the federal status determination.
First, surveying efforts helped paint a more complete picture of the hellbenders' status in Tennessee. Hellbender distribution and abundance within its historic range had declined severely over the last 20 years. Middle Tennessee hellbenders were present in only four Tennessee River tributaries, and they were not collected from the Cumberland or Barrens Rivers systems—places where they were once abundant. Hellbenders were also missing from a number of streams that once boasted viable populations in years past. Several relict populations of old individuals exhibited a lack of recruitment with either no reproduction or recruitment of young. A genetic survey of tissue samples taken from individuals from each river system distinguished two genetically distinct populations—the Duck and Hiwassee river system populations. This knowledge will help guide future restocking efforts that help maintain maximum genetic diversity.
Photo courtesy of the Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies
Second, to enhance the sampling process, Dr. Freake, with the help of Dr. Stephen Spear, an assistant conservation scientist with the Orianne Society, developed a new protocol to detect the presence of eastern hellbenders—an innovation that will continue to affect conservation across the range of the species. All organisms shed genetic material into their environment through feces, mucus and urine. This DNA is known as environmental DNA (eDNA). Just as forensic scientists use DNA to prove presence at a crime scene, eDNA can be used to detect aquatic organisms. This new process exponentially decreased the labor and money it takes to locate the presence of hellbenders by snorkeling through streams. It also increased the effectiveness of regular surveying techniques for hellbenders. In 2011, hellbender presence was detected at sites where regular survey efforts had failed to detect the species. The highest levels of DNA were found at sites of known reproducing populations, suggesting the promise for correlating DNA levels with abundance. These data have been incorporated into the Tennessee Wildlife Action Plan to strategically update the actions needed to continue restoring the species over the years to come.
Third, new techniques and protocols for restoring the hellbender were developed. A new cryopreservation technique developed by McGinnity was used to produce the hellbender—drawing from the first gene bank for any amphibian species, and with perfected hormonal induction and artificial fertilization techniques, McGinnity produced the first-ever captive-bred eastern hellbenders. Furthermore, he and Dr. Debra Miller at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville developed new sampling protocols for better understanding the impact of ranaviruses (family Iridoviridae) and chytrid fungus (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis) on hellbender populations. These disease organisms have caused declines in amphibian populations worldwide. Dr. Miller performed the pathogen determinations, and both were detected.
The primary funding source for the hellbender project was the State and Tribal Wildlife Grants Program, which is funded annually by the U.S. Congress and administered to state fish and wildlife agencies through the Service. The program helps works to prevent the need to list wildlife as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act by conserving at-risk species and keeping common species common through the implementation of State Wildlife Action Plans. The hellbender project is an exciting example of the program's success.
Bill Reeves, Chief of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency's Division of Biodiversity, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Mary Pfaffko, Teaming with Wildlife Associate at the Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies, can be reached at email@example.com.
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