UMR biologist tries to save the Ozark hellbender

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On May 9, 2003

The Ozark hellbender, an aquatic salamander that inhabits the Black River system and the North Fork of the White River system in Missouri, could face extinction. But University of Missouri-Rolla biologist Dr. Yue-wern Huang is hoping to save the amphibian.

Huang, an assistant professor of biological sciences at UMR, and his research assistants are searching for possible factors for the decline in Missouri’s hellbender population in an effort to remove them from the State Endangered Species List. Huang’s research is funded by the U.S. Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service, the Missouri Department of Conservation and the Saint Louis Zoo.

Through a catch and re-catch program, as well as water sampling Huang hopes to find the cause of decline and preserve the hellbender, a species that Huang says "is critical to the ecosystem."

The Ozark hellbender could be found in abundance throughout its Missouri range in the 1970s and 1980s. But over the past two decades a drastic decline in the hellbender population led the Missouri Department of Conservation to upgrade the its classification from a "Species of Concern" to a "State Endangered Species" in March 2003. "These drastic declines make this research vital to preserving this species, which is a part of the natural heritage of Missouri," says Huang.

Possible reasons for the population decline include habitat reduction, human activity, and domestic discharge of waste waters, Huang says. He and the Hellbender Workshop Group, a consortium of state and federal agencies and research institutions, have compiled their hypotheses for possible reasons of decline and are proceeding with testing.

Huang uses a two-pronged approach to testing:

— Water sampling to search for excess nutrients in the water or endocrine disruptors that could affect the population. Endocrine disruptors are environmental estrogens such as pesticides that can disrupt reproduction systems.

— A health examination where a blood sample from the hellbender shows the effect the elements have on its physical condition.

Huang and his colleagues use a non-invasive approach to measure the health conditions of the hellbenders. They take an on-site blood sample to get the plasma and find indicators of their health conditions. Dr. Paul Nam, a research assistant professor in the UMR Center for Environmental Science and Technology, is assisting with the chemical analysis of the samples.

Before it’s released, Huang inserts a small magnetic bar into the tail of the hellbender using a technique called PIT-Tagging. The bar works like a bar code and allows Huang to identify gender when the tagged hellbenders are re-caught.

Because the hellbender populations in Missouri are not doing well, Huang’s group plans to use the healthy and flourishing populations of the Eastern hellbender, found in the rivers of North Carolina, as the control group.

In addition to Huang’s work, Ron Goellner, director of animal collections and general curator at the Saint Louis Zoo, has begun to set up a hatchery to raise and propagate hellbenders. During the next breeding season, in September and October, Huang’s research group, among others, will assist the zoo in collecting adult hellbenders to serve as the foundation of the breeding program.

Hatchlings from eggs collected by researchers at Southwest Missouri State University will be raised at the zoo. When they are large enough five to seven years of age some of the hatchlings will be released into their natural environment with implanted transmitters to see if hellbenders raised in captivity can survive in the wild.

Before this release can take place, however, Huang must determine the causes of the population decline. For future long-term conservation data, he plans to use the new hatchlings to determine a baseline for their health condition information.

In addition to his research at UMR, Huang manages outreach education for the Hellbender Workshop Group, a consortium of representatives from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Missouri Department of Conservation, Arkansas State University, Southwest Missouri State University, Mark Twain National Forest Service, the St. Louis Zoo and Arkansas Mammoth Spring Fish Hatchery. Through this work, the group hopes to raise awareness about the hellbender population decline in Missouri.

In July, Huang will present his research findings at a national hellbender conference at Unicoi State Park in Helen, Ga.

NOTE: This release was written by UMR students Rye Kaminski, a sophomore in business and management systems from Houston, Texas, and Jed Steward, a junior in business and management systems from Boss, Mo., as a technical writing class project.

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On May 9, 2003. Posted in Research