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The Ozark Hellbender

I’ve wanted to see a live and wild Hellbender Salamander for some time now.  Not grasping the seriousness of this animals decline in Missouri, I’ve opted for searching rivers relatively close to home that historically held populations of these salamanders.  Coming up empty handed again and again prompted me to look a little further away from home.  I’m sure you can imagine my disappointment after searching seemingly perfect habitat, in localities known for having large populations not so many years ago, and finding nothing. 

Finally, I decided to put in still a few more miles.  This landed me and my partner Brian Scheidt in a river known for having an existing (yet declining) population of Ozark Hellbenders.  The plan was to simply canoe a section of river that held known localities and stop and search the better sections of habitat along the way. 

The day started much like many have this summer, trying to talk myself into dawning a mask and snorkel and entering the frigid water.  It wasn’t long before my enthusiasm overcame my reluctance to penetrate the water and I was off turning rocks yet again.  Most of the morning was spent trying to identify crayfish and then very carefully replacing the rocks just as we found them.

Upon lifting another rock just like the countless before it, I noticed a mottled object and figured it was just another Rock Bass like the many I had already uncovered that day.  But as the sediment cleared the Rock Bass turned into the unmistakable shape of a beautiful Hellbender Salamander.  Elated we quickly took a few photos, recorded the locality data, and let the salamander crawl back under its rock. 

Ideally I would have liked to have spent more time trying to get better photos but thought it best not to induce anymore stress on the salamander than necessary.  The rest of the day was spent just soaking up the sunshine and enjoying the river; after finding a perfect, healthy, adult we though it unnecessary to disturb anymore habitat searching for another.

While I couldn’t be happier with finding this individual, all that I’ve learned coupled with all of my unsuccessful trips have painted a bleak picture for me regarding the future of this exclusively Ozark animal.

 

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A scene from a typical Ozark stream where Hellbender habitat can be found.   

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Here's Brian searching some suitable habitat.

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A close up shot showing the tiny eye

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A full body shot.

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Here you can see the actual rock that we found our salamander hiding under in the lower center of the frame.

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As of now I have zero experience distinguishing the sex of Hellbenders but until I'm told otherwise I'm going to guess male from the slight swelling around the cloaca.

 

*note* After I made this report Dr. Stan Trauth, Professor of Zoology at Arkansas State University, informed me that it's difficult to tell but he would guess the above animal to be female.

 

 

 

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Me looking happy with my first Hellbender.