Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Conservation Research: Status of hellbender salamanders in the Susquehanna River Drainage

This summer and fall, BU graduate student Jamie Shinskie and Sean Hartzell (B.S., Biology, natural history option) worked with Dr. Amber Pitt to lead a team of undergraduate and graduate student researchers to assess the habitat and distribution of hellbenders (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis) in the Susquehanna River Drainage. Hellbenders are large, long-lived, aquatic salamanders that inhabit high quality, highly oxygenated, fast flowing streams and rivers in the eastern United States. They are sensitive to siltation, sedimentation, and chemical contaminants within streams, and as a result, habitat degradation has resulted in precipitous declines in hellbender populations throughout their range. Hellbenders are currently being considered for listing as a federally endangered species. Student researchers including graduate student Linda Tucker Serniak and undergraduate students Ryan Smolock, Kent Cooper, and Michael Baade gained experience collecting hellbender environmental DNA (eDNA) samples and evaluating the within-stream habitat upon which hellbenders rely. This research will 1) reveal the current distribution of hellbenders in an area that has undergone dramatic land use changes, 2) allow for the elucidation of the main drivers of population decline and extirpation, and 3) provide valuable information that can be used to inform management and conservation decisions.