Monday, September 3, 2007

Hellbender Survey

Saturday, Aug 25th, was Cornell Herpetological Society's annual Hellbender survey in the Southern Tier. We use this trip as an introduction for freshmen to the society. We joined veteran herp researcher, Dr. Richard Bothner, (professor emeritus from St. Bonaventure, author of the new NYS Herp Guide, and and an expert on Thamnophis brachystoma, the rare garter snake whose world range is from the Allegany region to Pittsburgh), and NYS DEC biologist Ken Roblee. They have been monitoring the Hellbender populations in NY for years. The situation isn't good. The species may soon be elevated from its Special Concern status to Threatened or even Endangered in NY State. You wouldn't suspect it, the way Dr. Bothner and Mr. Roblee take us to one of their study sites and we quickly turn up beastly salamanders. However, these sites are some of the last remaining in the state where they occur in any numbers, so we took care to tread carefully. Last year, we had good success. We caught three individuals, including a big 20+ incher. Check out photos and commentary from last year here.

Our first catch this year at Location A was a mid-sized Mudpuppy (Necturus maculosus).

Not long thereafter, a massive Hellbender was discovered. I looked across the creek to see what the shouting was about, and saw a big, squirming Hellbender go flopping person-to-person as they scrambled to get a grip on it, then diving back into the creek and disappearing. Given that it was the one-that-got-away, I'd estimate it was at least 5 feet.... not really, but I think it was a least a 20-incher.

Flipping away!

A few more rock flips later, and someone netted a Hellbender successfully. This guy/gal was small - measured out to 10 inches. Everyone, including our guides, were quite pleased to see a young individual. Finding young Hellbenders has become a rare occurance at many locales. They thought this one was only four or so years old.

We found little otherwise at Location A, so we proceeded to Location B, where the water was flowing faster and clearer, and there were more rocks to flip. After about twenty or so minutes of coordinated groups working there way up the stream, we uncovered two big 'benders in quick succession. We kept them waiting in nets dipped in the running water to keep them oxygenated, while we took them through the data collection process with Ken Roblee.

'Bender Transfer. We placed it into a big tote with some water, inside a long tray to measure length in. Ken is talking about directly measuring the O2 levels of the Hellbender as they work on them, so they can monitor their oxygenation and stress levels.

'Bender Length. Both total length and standard (snout-vent) length are taken, because some 'benders lose tail tips (or more!). They are flipped over to check gender. The two we caught measured just over 18" and 20".

Data on all distinguishing features are taken - toe counts, scarring, etc. The big males can be really beaten up, as they fight with each other over nesting territory. See my linked post from last year to see a male with a big, fresh bite taken out of his neck. These guys have cool toes.

All toes present and accounted for.
Toes not quite all there.
Rex faithfully entering Data, while Dr. Adler and Ian chat.
Mass is also measured:

Finally, the 'benders are checked for PIT (Passive Integrated Transponder) tags. These subcutaneous electronic tags do not harm the 'bender, and allow Ken to swipe them with a reader and get an individual identification number. Ken has been tagging individuals at these sites for several years, but individuals always escape his efforts, and one of these adults was untagged. I filmed the tagging process (really quite simple). All you do is insert a big nasty looking needle into a skin fold, and leave the tag in place just under the skin.

The PIT tags


After these measurements are taken, the 'benders are returned next to their home rock.

Of course, photography was rampant throughout the process, so here are a few closeup of these beautifully ugly, endearing monsters of the creek:

After these two big 'benders were measured and released, we decided to call it a day. We posed for a group shot on the way out (Second from left: Ken Roblee; Right: Dr. Bothner; Right, kneeling: Dr. Adler):

Despite the potential of looming thunderstorms all day, we luckily escaped without a drop of rain. Thunderstorms chased us all the way home as we drove eastward back to Ithaca. As I drove the van up East Hill towards Cornell campus, a big storm loomed up behind us, and I could see the flashes from the lightening bouncing off the buildings ahead. We pulled to a stop in front of Corson-Mudd Hall to drop off our gear. I stepped out and turned around, and saw a massive storm about to bury us. In less than a minute, it was raining so hard that I was soaked to the skin in approximately ten seconds, along with everyone else who had just piled out of the van. We decided to carry on with gear removal since we were already soaked, despite some of us violently shivering from the sudden cold. We struggled to carry 15 pairs of waders at a run through rain driving so hard it stung. Lightning was crashing down right on campus, lighting up the sky electric purple. It was probably one of the top five most violent storms I've ever experienced. Needless to say, we survived, thoroughly soaked:

My friend Cristina Munk, who also witnessed this freak, fast (~30 minutes and the sun was out again), said she saw ball lightning in the sky, also observed by others I talked to. Cristina didn't capture any cool lightning photos, but she did get this dramatic photo of the Cornell Clocktower and the colorful sunset that followed. I'll close this exciting trip with these photos:


  1. Looks like a great time and very glad that you guys were able to find a few! Ok, now I need to spend time watching all your clips! Great job documenting the day!

  2. Great overview. That was definitely a fun trip. Saturday I happened to have a 15 hellbender day (+ an egg mass). All of them were 18in or under though. I'll have to take you to that spot sometime.

    In the next few days I'm going to try and figure out when I'll be able to make a visit to Cornell. I'll probably contact you soon.

  3. Thanks guys. I heard about that day, Rex - fantastic! Was it in PA?

  4. I interned under Ken Roblee last year as a SUNY Buffalo student, he's a great guy to work with. Did a search with his name and found this. Is there anything better than slogging your way through cool mountain streams chasing slimy vertebrates no sane people would touch?

    ~ E.

  5. Nope, nothing better at all... :)