One of my favorite pieces of music is "In the Hall of the Mountain King" by Edvard Grieg. I first heard the piece in Mrs. Wilson’s fifth-grade music class, and it has stuck with me all these years. I’m sure that many of you have a selection that holds a special place in your heart as well. Imagine that music right now in your head. Got it? Now imagine one of the instruments in the piece was no longer there, one of string or wind instruments perhaps. It probably still sounds much like it did before. Keep removing one instrument at a time and before long, it is no longer recognizable. It no longer moves you to tap your feet or sway with the rhythm.
Our ecosystem is much the same way. We look at the lofty pines, an eagle riding warm air currents or the cool, clear waters of the Current River relentlessly enforcing the laws of change and are moved. There are many parts to each ecosystem. Remove one species of plant or animal, and the ecosystem is different but still recognizable. Keep removing plants or animals from the music of the Ozarks Hills, and it is no longer the place that moves us or speaks to our hearts. We have heard that species are disappearing from our world faster than any time in the history of our planet. I believe that to be true. But we’re not just losing the cute ones with feathers or fur. We’re losing some very, well, interesting-looking ones, too.
Meet the Ozark hellbender. The largest salamander in Missouri is one of the more interesting species in the “song” of the Ozarks and is a species of concern. Both hellbender species, the Ozark and the Eastern, need clean, cold, fast-moving waters. The Ozark hellbender can be found in the Current and Jacks Fork rivers. Many people see the hellbender model at Twin Pines and call it a “water dog,” but hellbenders are very different from water dogs. The big folds of skin make it look as if it had a really bad tailor. Its flattened shape is perfect for walking along the bottom looking for food in riffles. Ozark hellbenders are the subject of many crude myths, but they are actually harmless creatures from which we can learn much about a stream’s water quality.
Hellbenders were once abundant in Missouri streams, but European settlement helped spur a decline in populations. Surveys of Ozark hellbender populations are routinely performed to assess the survival of these animals and also the quality of the stream they inhabit. Ultimately, when a species’ population declines, conservation agents and biologists work relentlessly to identify causes of the decline. Population declines can be caused by environmental pollution or overharvest of animals and their environments, both a major issue in resource management. The Current River is a “high-volume” floating stream that has seen abuse over decades, yet still remains vital habitat for such a species of conservation concern.
Biologists aren’t sure why hellbenders are declining, but they are working to find out why. Whatever the reason, the hellbender needs your help. What you do on your visit matters a great deal. When you flip rocks over, put them back where they were. As we tell kids, that is somebody’s home, put the roof back on it. Chemicals and waste, including organics, don’t belong in the river. If you see a hellbender, count yourself lucky, but leave it alone. Like your favorite music, the Ozarks is at its best when all the parts are there, including the instruments we call hellbenders.