The black market for hellbenders is driven by Japanese aquarium enthusiasts. Poachers were cruising academic literature for the GPS coordinates of rocks where hellbenders had been documented. It’s one more hit to a species that is already dwindling in numbers. Freake, a Lee University scientist, is conducting a hellbender salamander survey across the region to figure just how many there are.
“It appears rivers that used to have hellbenders no longer do. Many rivers that do still have them don’t appear to have very healthy populations,” Freake said. His research will provide a baseline to monitor future changes in the hellbender population.
Freake is particularly interested in finding baby hellbenders.
“Most of the hellbenders we find are pretty old,” Freake said. The decline in young hellbenders is troubling, Freake said.
Judging by the rivers where hellbenders are still doing OK and those where hellbenders are dying out, Freake has already lit on the top culprit: sediment.
“If you have a bunch of sediment going into the river, the rocks the young ones would refuge under are silted up and they have nowhere to refuge and they get eaten or die,” Freake said. “Sediment is the obvious cause. It’s a no-brainer.”
Hellbenders are listed as “species of special concern,” one notch down from threatened and two notches down from endangered.
“That’s a euphemism for ‘They are declining but we don’t know how much or where,’” Freake said.
Hellbenders were often killed in the old days. Many fishermen still do when they come across one.
“There is a fair bit of folklore that surrounded hellbenders, all of which is unfounded,” Freake said. “They have been somewhat persecuted for no good reason.”
Hellbenders are building up quite a fan base though. Museums are adding them to their repertoire. And once a year, Freake attends a hellbender conference where a six-foot-long fiberglass hellbender is brought out for display.
— By Becky Johnson