Episode 48: Saving Hellbenders Part One Transcript


Nature Boost Podcast  

Episode 48:

Saving Hellbenders Part One

[Music playing.]    

>>    What happens to the hellbender happens to us [echoing] 


>>   We have been waiting for this day for almost five years.  But it's like finding a needle in a haystack.  Finding that male guarding a nest, that we know is his nest.  So, I don't think I will ever lose the feeling I had that day and I'm hopeful that I will get to find that again this year. 

>>   We are chasing that high!   


>>   Yes, we are. 


>>   Hey there and welcome back to Nature Boost.   I'm Jill Pritchard with the Missouri Department of Conservation.   What high exactly is Jeff Briggler chasing?  Our state herpetologist is referring to perhaps one of the most important conservation efforts of his career, saving the endangered hellbender. Never heard of it?  Maybe you know this aquatic critter by one of its other names, Snot Otter, Allegany Alligator, or Water Dog.  The hellbender is the largest salamander found in North America and Missouri is very special, as it's the only place in the world where both Ozark and eastern hellbender subspecies exist. 

This past fall, I tagged along with Jeff as he conducted his first search of the year, to see if any hellbenders were reproducing. 

>>  Well, today is really an exciting day. It's the first day of the fall season that I am going out to search for eggs.  I am going to one of the eastern hellbender rivers, because they lay eggs earlier in the year.  Usually, mid to late September.  Ozarks are in October, more.  So, we start on those streams first.  We are just going to go out and see if eggs have been laid yet.  If they have, we're going to determine what stage of development, how fresh they are. 

Maybe we will get lucky and find a male guarding a nest today, as one came from the Saint Louis Zoo.  There is all kinds of excitement today.  Every year, it is something new we learn. 



>>   Rivers in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas once supported up to 45,000 Ozark and eastern hellbenders. Today, only about 2,000 exist in the world.  So few that both subspecies have been added to the Federal Endangered Species list. Biggest threats these salamanders face include habitat alteration and degradation, disease, predation, and degraded water quality. 

On a mission to restore populations, NBC partnered with the Saint Louis Zoo and other agencies in the early 2000s to breed hellbenders in human care, and rear eggs collected from the wild.  Once the zoo-reared larvae reached between 3 to 8 years old, they were released in their native Ozark aquatic ecosystem. 

Since the breeding and raising of these animals began, more than 12,000 Ozark and eastern hellbenders have been released.  Instrument the fall of 2022, the day scientists had been waiting for came. 

>>   Last fall, we were out looking for eggs. We were fortunate to find a male hellbender guarding a clutch of eggs.  That male hellbender, they all have tags in it from what we released in the wild, had a tag number we knew came from the Saint Louis Zoo.  Those eggs were collected by myself in 2013, and released in 2019.  And then in the fall of 2022, he became the first documented male to fertilize a clutch of eggs in the wild. 

>>   How did you feel whenever you guys were able to confirm that news? 

>>    I mean, it was kind of surreal, I guess, in a way, because we have been waiting for this day for almost five years. Because we have released a lot of hellbenders.  But, it's like finding a needle in a haystack, finding that male guarding a nest that we know is his nest.  It's probably happening out there, but just documenting it.  So, I don't think I will ever lose the feeling I had that day and I am hopeful that I will get to find that again this year. 



[Paddling water] 

>>   Do you need me to paddle? 

>>   Oh, no you are fine. 

>>   Oh, great I was hoping that was the answer. 


>>   I am good.  I'm curious due to the conditions today, it is time for eastern hellbenders to breed.  We have had a lot of cold nights.  We got a nice overcast day, so they might be moving some during the daytime, so there's a high probability we might see some walking on the bottom, if we pay attention. 

>>   How will I be able to tell that I can see a hellbender walking on the bottom?  Just the shape of them? 

>>   If they're walking, they're gonna be large animals, 16, 17, 18 inches in size.  If they're walking up, they will just be looking like a brown-looking log, straight - walking straight up the river. 


>>    A brown-looking log. 

>>   It's just going to stick out. It's just something that's a little unnatural looking than the normal habitat on the bottom.  It's like anything you get a search image for over time, and you can pick them out.  Just kinda like when you look for a deer in a field.  You are looking for the shape outline.  Same thing, over time, you just look for an animal shape, that just doesn't seem to fit when they're moving. 

[Paddling water] 

>>   If you've seen a hellbender, you'd never forget it.  They have broad, flat heads, with very small, lidless eyes.  On the sides of their body, they have really pronounced folds of skin that kind of look like lasagna noodles, which is where they get their other nickname, Lasagna Sides.  They also have a flattened rutter-like tail.  The eastern hellbender can measure around 24 inches long, while the Ozark hellbender is slightly smaller.  Their skin is also sensitive to light, so they typically stay safe by hiding under rocks. 


[Crickets chirping.] 

>>  Can you zip me up real quick? 

>>   If you're doing these on your own, how do you zip up your wetsuit? 


>>    I hardly ever do any on my own. 

>>   Oh, yeah?  Okay. 

>>    I almost always have somebody for my safety.  But, sometimes, I met one landowner, right by his house.  I know him. He will zip up my suit for me. 


>>   Or if someone is driving by, I will politely ask. 


>>   Hey, you mind zipping me up?

>>   Hey, do you mind zipping up my suit? 


[Wetsuit Zipping] 

>>   Dang, that is really sucking you in there, huh? 

>>   Yeah. 

>>  You look like you got poured into this thing. 

[Inaudible comment]

>>   No, I got it.  I'm trying to do it with one hand.  Is that good?  Okay. We have a nest over here, a documented nest, that we're checking out? 

>>   Yeah, what we are going to check out first is our artificial nest boxes.

>>   Right. 

>>    That we transplant in the wild in the different rivers.  We have several boxes here.  One of them is a fairly consistent box.  The animal in there, since we have put this box in here 12 years ago, he has bred in there 11 times.  So, he is kind of my first representative of the year, to see if there are eggs there. It's the same male. 

>>   It's the same - 

>>   The same male every year. 

>>   Same male. 

>>   Every year. 

>>   Every year.   

>>  Again, these are the eastern hellbenders we are checking out, because they breed sooner than the Ozark subspecies. Look at me, I'm an expert already. 


>>   Okay.  Alright.  So what are you, you're gathering your -- 

>>    I just want to take a little data, take some water temperature about the time we're gonna be here.  Because if we do find eggs, water temperature is very important for determining when they were laid because development of eggs is slower in colder water, and faster in warmer water.  So, as you do this for the whole season, having that water temperature is great to have.  So  . . .  It's not too bad, 16.4 Celsius.  Which is about 60 degrees, 61.  Even though we are in here looking for eggs, I will do a count on what hellbenders I see today, and tally those so we know how many have been observed during the course of the day and at what locations we were at. 


>>   Okay, and right now, you are putting on your weighted belt. 

>>   My weighted belt, to help me stay on the bottom a little bit easier. 

>>   You're going to be over there a little bit? 

>>   These two spots right here are where I want to check first. 

>>   You're going under?  Good luck. 

>>    I am. 

>>   Alright, Jeff is now snorkeling to the nest box.  He is under water!  While checking on the nest, Jeff would bring up a hellbender for processing, if given the chance. 

Whoa!  Oh my gosh!  Look at his little feet!  Whoa! Wow, he does have a pancake head! Could I touch him? 

>>   Yeah. 

>>   Is that okay?  Oh!  He is slippery.  Wow! They do have like lasagna sides. He would weigh the animal, take measurements, swab for disease, and see if males were providing sperm to determine what stage of development they were in for breeding season. 

>>   There is no exposed skin anywhere. His eyes look good.  Wrinkles of skin, I will see if he's got four toes on each front.  Yeah. Four toes. 

>>   They are so cute! 

>>   Looks pretty good.  They have five in the back. 

>>  Five in the back. 

>>   One, two, three, four, five. Looks fine.  Let's see if he's got them all here.   Looks good.  I will flip him over and check for any sores, any other signs.  Looks like really his only problem is somebody got his tail at some point in time.  Okay. So, now we will see if he's producing any sperm. 


>>   Okay, so earlier you were telling me about the consistency and just the sperm overall in general.  You can tell a lot about, like, the - 

>>   The quality - 

>>   The quality of the - 

>>   Just by - 

>>   The quality of the breeding season. 

>>   Yeah, just by color and texture. Let's see if he's going to produce any. He's producing a little bit.  It is not real milky yet.  It is fairly clear.  I think we're actually a little early. 

>>   So, that tells you it's a little early in the breeding season right now? 

>>   Yeah.  Yeah.  It looks like we're just a tad early.  Not to say a few have bred somewhere, but I don't think we have hit the peek yet. 

>>   Gotcha. 

[River water flowing.] 


>>   So while swimming out there, before I was checking the next nest box, I looked on the ground and I found a hellbender egg laying on the ground.  So, here's a fresh -- this is probably a one- or two-day old egg right there. 

>>   Whoa!  Wow!  Look at that membrane! 

>>    I need to find the nest here in a minute. So the egg is just about, a little bit smaller than a sweet pea size.  The membrane right now is small.  It's about a dime in diameter.  But they're gonna get up to nickel to quarter diameter over the next few days. 

>>   Wow! 

>>   I will put this in my pocket for right now. 

>>   You think that came out of one of the nesting boxes? 

>>   It could be one of the next boxes. I will check.  This nest box here has never gotten eggs before, but the male's been in there for years.  I don't know if it's in that box or a natural nest nearby, or it floated.  So, I do think we're a little early on breeding, however, we know some breeding has occurred.  Because we just found some eggs. 


>>   On my gosh!  That's  . . . 

>>   It's about to get exciting now. 


>>   So, I'm gonna go back out. 

>>    I can't believe you were able to spot that. That is little. 

[Water splashing] 

>>    I will go back out and see where these came from. 

>>   Okay. 


>>   It is in the nest box. 

>>   It is?! 

>>   These nest boxes have been here since 2012.  We've never got eggs in this box before.  This is loaded with eggs. 

>>   It is loaded?!  Wow! 

>>   That's where that egg came from, so I could luckily put it back in the chamber, and I need to take some photographs of the eggs, so I can do counts on how many.  Just the first peek in there, there's probably somewhere between 100 and 200 eggs. 

>>   Whoa! 

>>   So, a fun find. 


>>   Oh my gosh.   This is, this is, this is crazy.  This is awesome news. 

>>    I love it when I get a new exciting find for the year. 

>>   And this is on your first day, too! 

>>    Yes. 

>>   Of your checks. 

>>    A new box that never had eggs before.  It's exciting. 

>>   But there's always been a male inside, right?

>>   Always.  Same male for years and years.  So, it's interesting.  I'm going to go down now with the underwater camera. 

>>   Okay. 

>>    I will pop the lid and take some photographs of the eggs.  Because I can do counts on them later. 

>>   Alright. 

>>    I will be right back. 

[Underwater sounds] 

>>   As a sidebar, while Jeff is taking his pictures, if you guys have never worn waders before, I would definitely recommend.  They are kind of cozy.  I'm borrowing a pair that Jeff let me wear.  I might have to go get my own. 


>>   There are over 300 eggs in there. 

>>   300?! 

>>   Yeah.  I will have to do counts later.  This does it - 

>>   Whoa!  So each egg is in their own little membrane. 

>>   Yeah, and they are all connected together like pearls, like a necklace or pearls. 

>>   Yeah. 

>>   So, there's four back in here from different poses. 

>>   Wow. 

>>   There's a lot in there. 

>>   That's good news! 

>>   Yes, indeed. 


[Music starts] 

>>   Wow!  Hellbender breeding is pretty unique.  In the fall, males will start making nests by digging a hollow under a big rock.  He'll then wait for a female to come and lay eggs, usually two strands of 100 to 350. The male will spray his sperm on the eggs, and then the female will leave.  The male will stay to guard the eggs, which hatch in four to six weeks. The father will watch over those babies, until they leave the nest in late winter or early spring. 

Because hellbenders spend most of their lives under rocks, it's so important to leave rocks alone and not to move them.  A lot of people like to stack rocks as a form of nature art, or mediation.  But by moving them, we could be destroying hellbender's homes, or causing them to collapse, and even destroying habitat for other animals as well.  To give them a better chance, Jeff and his colleagues developed the first hellbender nesting boxes of their kind. 

>>   Around 2008 and 9 we developed some prototypes.  No one has ever tried it before.  We put a few in the wild, the different prototypes.  And we had a few animals using them, but after getting some knowledge of the rocks that they like and stuff, we settled in one on design, and tried to modify it. So, in 2010, our first true test, we put seven boxes out in June of 2010 in a river, in an Ozark hellbender stream. 


We went back the first week in November.  Water was pretty chilly, and I'll never forget we were checking those seven boxes. I think it was box number 6 of checking that day.  I went up to it, and I noticed there was a hellbender at the tunnel, and he tried to bite me.  So, that's a good sign that he's probably defending a nest. 

I told my colleagues there to wait.  Wait, stand back and let me go get my camera.  Because I had a feeling when I moved all of the rocks and took the lid off that I was going to see eggs.  I wanted that first initial appearance of those eggs.  It was crazy because when we opened it, they were well developed.  So, when the sunlight hit them, the embryos were moving and they just kind of shimmered and it looked like little golden nuggets. 


Because they have these yolk sacs and stuff.  So right then, we just put boxes out.  Seven boxes and got a nest on a river that no one has ever found eggs on.  So, that was very exciting.  What is interesting is, you never know if you are dreaming. 


I will have to say, my colleagues and I, driving our jet boats back to the ramp, we stopped a couple of times to look in the box, because we removed the eggs to take to the zoo, to make sure eggs were there, and we weren't dreaming.  I'll have to say on my route to the zoo, I pulled over a couple of times to still think maybe I was dreaming.  But it was definitely real animals.  Some of those animals got released like in 2016. 

So that meant a lot for the first eggs ever got in a nest box to be released.  After that, we went from seven boxes to 78 boxes across the state. 

>>   Oh my Gosh. 

>>   And increased our numbers.  They have been very successful, but typically, what has happened for many years, animals like the boxes, they use them. But not all boxes get eggs. There's go-to boxes every year, they always have eggs and eggs.  But every so often, especially in the last couple of years, there's some new ones, boxes that have animals, that have never gotten eggs in ten or eleven years, get eggs. 


Like this is our first nest today, this box has never gotten eggs.  This male has been in this box since 2012.  This is the first time they are there.  So, why now?  I mean, it's hard to know.  Is there other females in the area?  Maybe a female moved into the area and decided to use that.  But we have released a lot of hellbenders, and maybe some of those hellbenders we released have grown up, got to a larger size now, and they're breeding in these boxes. 

This spot where we are at today, even last year, we had another box that had never gotten eggs before, had eggs last year.  So, I went from this small set of eight boxes here, that one always gets eggs, now over the time period, five of the eight have gotten eggs at least one time. 

>>   On my gosh! 

>>   So, it will be exciting now when I come back next year, to see if there's eggs in this one. 

>>   Yeah, absolutely.  So, you were saying with the design of these nesting boxes, you might have to compare to other ones, just to see if you need to adapt some of the measurements? 

>>   Yeah.  The thing we did - you can make molds of these boxes and make them all exactly the same size.  But we actually prefer not to.  We handmake these out of wire, concrete them.  They are all slightly different.  The entrance, where the hellbender goes might be a centimeter or two difference.  The chamber length or tunnel length, how much volume in the chamber.  So, by making them slightly different, we can actually run stats on them. 

Now that we're getting many years of data with more in there, what we are kinda seeing is, we think we got the tunnel design perfect for the animals to defend and guard their nests.  We actually think it's the volume of the chamber.  They want that slightly bigger chamber, even though that slightness might only be a half an inch bigger. 


So adding this box now into the mix with the stats, it will probably start showing more and more. If that's the case, we know from here on out if we want to design more, just a few minor tweaks.  But we know they love them already. 


>>   I'm just going to tell you.  All the years of the last 12 years, photographing the eggs, we photograph all of the eggs, do counts on these eggs, estimate how many are in there, but just alone in the last 12 or 13 years, we have estimated production just from these 78 nest boxes have been over 30,000 eggs. 

>>   Gosh, that's substantial. 

>>   Yeah.  Most of these stay in the wild to hatch there, but we remove some and take them to the zoo to raise them so that they can be released back in the river, too.  So like today, right now we are leaving the eggs in there.  They are very fresh, fairly fresh.  I would say there are two, maybe three days old.  If I want to collect those, I'm gonna wait almost three and a half more weeks.  I want them well developed embryos, moving.  Then, we will collect some of these.  These would be an ideal one to collect, because I have never collected here before. 

I don't need to take them all.  I might take 100 of these for down the line.  Because we are really wanting the different genetics.  Because I know this male, I don't have any of his breeding stock yet.  Because I have never collected here. 

>>   Right. 

>>   So, we make those conscious decisions throughout the fall.  What I have learned, really, the more success you have is the harder to manage all of the success.  So, you got to start making huge data bases and stuff, to remember - okay, when did I take eggs out of this box?  Did I take eggs from this nest?  You have to say who is related to whom.  So, we make sure we are not removing a lot of brothers and sisters.  With that success continuing, and you're releasing a lot of animals you've already raised, that's gonna start muddying up the water a little bit. 

But ultimately, it's going to help the whole situation.  So, with success comes a lot more paperwork I would say. 


>>   Yeah, I would say so.  But it sounds like a good problem to have. 

>>   Oh, definitely.  I mean, we sat back years ago, I mean I could remember every little thing and never have to write it down.  And now, it's like I've gotta have databases, spreadsheets, knowing this daddy who's pit tag is this, is always in this box.  I removed his eggs on this day.  Because if I remove his babies, when they grow up in eight or ten years, we want to breed them at the zoo.  10 years later, I gotta go back and know all of that information. 

And then make sure the females we put with him came from somewhere else on the river.  We don't want them to come from the same location. We want to mix up genetics even more. So, luckily, most people working with endangered animals don't have this kind of success.  Luckily, the success we're having makes database management harder, but ultimately it's gonna be more beneficial for the survival of this species, down the line. 


>>   Okay, so we found another nest. Full of eggs. 

>>   Probably right now, I pulled a few out. So, I will take some photographs. The male is right there, at the hole. He was a little aggressive, biting. 

>>   He's -- 

>>   Trying to be a little bitey. 

>>   He's a little bitey today!  Well, he's trying to defend his eggs.  So this is the second nest of eggs that we found today. I am saying "we," because I know I have been a huge help to you today. 

>>   Oh, yeah definitely.  You can help record some more data. 


>> Yay! 

>>   This is a repeat male.  He usually has a nest every year.  A very reliable male.  I think over the last 12 or 13 years, only one time I did not get eggs out of this location. 

>>   Oh wow. 

>>   So, we got a male in there. 


>>. Definitely attending, he is at the entrance.  A little bit aggressive.  That means he's got eggs back there, which we have already seen.  I will look at him a little closer here in a minute.  They look about the same as last ones we found, about two to three days old. 

>>   So they will hatch in how long?  A few weeks? 

>>    It will be four, maybe five weeks, depending on water temperature.  They'll hatch into little bitty yoked larvae.  Bright yellow yolks, no legs, and little gills.  Helpless.  They are way back in these chambers, where the males are guarding them.  The male will defend them.  They will absorb the yolk sac as food, for the next three months or so.  They will start to develop front and hind limbs.  Eventually, once they absorb their yolk sacs, they are about an inch, inch and a half.  They will turn real black in color.  Eventually, there won't be food in there, and they will leave. 

>>    I see. 

>>   That is usually March or April. So that male will defend them, all the way from September all the way to March or April of 2024 for this clutch. 

>>   What do hellbenders eat? 

>>   Their main diet, especially adults, is crayfish. 

>>   Really?  OK. 

>>   Yeah.  They mainly eat crayfish, but they would eat small sculpins and minnows and stuff, earthworms if they come into the river.  It is really strong crayfish. 

>>   They are meat eaters. 

>>   Oh, by far. 

>>   Yeah.  Alright. 

[Paddling water.] 

>>   So, this is -- 

>>   This is nest number three.   

>>   This is nest number three. 

>>   Way, way back there.  I did see this male found this nest for the first time last year.  So, it's a repeat from last year.  I can tell one has been using it.  These eggs are probably almost a meter and a half back in this hole. 

>>   Wow. 

>>   Yeah, so. 

>>   This is good news! 

>>   Number three for today. 

>>   You are starting your first day off, I feel like, on a  . . . 


>>  Oh, yeah. 

>>    . . . on a good note.  The first day of nest checks. 

>>   The first day of the season.  I said it before, the most nests I have ever found in an entire year is 29.  I have never broken 30.  I have broken over 25 nests twice in 20 years.  So - 

>>   This could be it. 

>>   Maybe this is the year I finally break 30.  I'm gonna have to search hard. 

>>   You could have a little Nature Boost luck, Jeff.  Maybe, you know  . . . a little Jill Pritchard magic. 



>>   Okay.  I need to get my photos.  That's a hellbender head.  See it? 

>>    I see it!  Yeah!  I just -

>>   He's sitting right there, below you. 

>>   Oh my god! 

>>   That hole comes all the way back here. 

>>   Look, there he is!  He's moving! 

>>    There he goes back in.   

 >>   On my god, I just saw him! 

>>    There's probably another one.  I will look there to see. 

>>    Look, he's coming back out! 

>>   He is waiting for a female to come along, too. 

>>    I just can't believe I happened to look down! 

>>   This time of the year, when breeding is starting, they can be out some.  He's not totally out. 

>>   There he is. 

>>   I am going to wait for his head to come back. If he can get his whole neck out, I will get him. 

>>   Look at his little pancake head! 

>>    I am going to run over there.  I just want to see if this is a different male.  See if I see this animal. 

>>   Oh my gosh!  What a special day! 

[Music starts.] 

>>   Okay, so we checked a few more locations and didn't see any more eggs.  But, overall, just to recap, three active nests. 

>>   Three nests today, they were all about two to three days old from laying eggs.  We are just at the start of breeding.  I will probably come back again next week and start searching some more. If I did my math right, we saw a total of 19 hellbenders today.  So, we got to see quite a few. 

>>   And I saw one!  I saw one of those 19 hellbenders!  I spotted it before you did!  Which is crazy. 

>>   Almost right between your legs. 

>>    I know!  It really was!  I just happened to look down, and there it was.  That was an awesome experience. 


>>   What are you going to do with all of this information then?  What happens? 

>>   Every year, I mean, we are recording data.  Like today, we found three nests, and one was a new nest box.  That is exciting to see.  We're just getting long-term data on these sites, trying to find new locations to better understand why they choose certain rocks over others, or locations. Just keep gaining more information. 

Ultimately, the goal is to keep looking for eggs, collect some of them, propagate them, raise them at the zoo, to bring back at a larger size, to increase the numbers in the river.  So, it's been a very positive day.  I'm sure it's going to be a positive season, before it's all over. 

[Music starts.] 

[Lyrics:  Hellbender, salamander, amphibian. Breathes in oxygen through its skin. Protects its body with a layer of slime. In North America it's the largest kind of salamander.  Hellbender, hellbender] 

>>   When we recorded this interview in September, Jeff didn't know just how positive this season would turn out to be. Not only did he find 32 hellbender nests last year, the most he has found in his 20 years, but he got some even better news.  An eastern hellbender raised at the Saint Louis Zoo had successfully reproduced on the Gasconade River.  Jeff said hellbender nests are rarely found on the Gasconade River, so it was a pleasant surprise to find one and an overwhelming surprise to learn the father was a zoo-released animal. 


[ Lyrics: The Ozark and the eastern variety, live under rocks in streams in the country] 

>>   So, we know what happens when scientists collect hellbender data and eggs from the wild.  But what happens next when they are raised at the Saint Louis Zoo?  Stay tuned for next month's follow-up episode where I speak with the zoo's curator of herpetology and aquatics, Justin Elden, and learn how the zoo breeds and cares for hellbenders. 

Thanks to MDC's herpetologist Jeff Briggler, and thanks to you for listening to another episode of Nature Boost.  I'm Jill Prichard, with the Missouri Department of Conservation, encouraging you to get your daily dose of the outdoors. 


[End podcast.]