Thursday, January 2, 2020

Feature: Hellbent For Hellbenders In The Kettle Creek Watershed

I first began searching for the giant Eastern Hellbender salamander in Kettle Creek during the summer of 2006. We were successful in finding a half-dozen and in ensuing years have captured over five hundred of them across multiple locations in the watershed. 
[The main stem of Kettle Creek traverses nearly 43 miles beginning in southwestern Tioga County, flowing through Potter County, and then emptying into the West Branch of the Susquehanna River in northwestern Clinton County.  It has over 350 miles of tributaries.]
The hellbender has specific habitat requirements: it needs large flat rocks as shelter and the distribution of the hellbender in the Kettle Creek watershed is limited to areas were large rocks are abundant.
Eastern Hellbenders are giants of the salamander world and can attain lengths of up to 29 inches. They are uniquely North American and are closely related to the giant salamanders of China and Japan. 
Their uniqueness was part of the reason that we felt that the hellbender deserved a unique status in Pennsylvania. 
Partnering with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Student Leadership Council, a bill to designate the Eastern Hellbender as the State Amphibian was drafted and ultimately passed by the State legislature and signed into law by Governor Tom Wolf on April 23, 2019.
Although we study the hellbender in many different watersheds, Kettle Creek has become one of our favorite study locations. 
The creek has some of the largest hellbenders that we have found which suggests that the creek is a high-quality environment for the species. 
All of the captured animals appear healthy and population density is high in stream reaches with abundant rock cover. 
We have found population density in Kettle Creek as high as one hellbender per three feet of stream channel length.
Difficult to find and capture, the giants rarely venture out to feed or find mates. They are sit-and-wait predators that grab prey items by using a powerful suction-feeding mechanism.
The hellbender “vacuums” a passing crayfish into the mouth then swallows the crustacean whole. The giant salamanders feed almost exclusively on crayfish and, in areas where hellbenders are abundant in Kettle Creek, the crayfish populations are depauperate by end of summer.
Hellbenders live a solitary lifestyle inside gravelly chambers that they themselves excavate beneath boulders. 
In late summer, females deposit long strings of pearl-like eggs inside the chambers of males who then fertilize them externally with milt. When done, the female departs leaving the male or “denmaster” with the responsibility of tending the eggs. 
For six-to-eight weeks, the embryos develop slowly and then in a flurry of activity, the tiny gilled-larvae with bright yellow bellies burst through the outer egg membrane to join siblings huddled in a corner of the chamber.
Adult hellbenders are at little risk from predators, other than humans who sometimes kill them not realizing how harmless they are or how valuable they are to stream and river ecosystems. 
Sportsmen in north-central Pennsylvania had a tradition of “hellbender hunting” that reached its hey-day in the 1930’s when they sought to rid Kettle Creek of the “enemy” of their beloved trout, not realizing that hellbenders dine solely on crustaceans. 
Fortunately, the hunts were not entirely successful.
Our research on the hellbender has advanced with new technologies. While in the past we needed to lift large rocks to find them, now we can just scan the rocks for their presence. 
What makes this possible is that each captured hellbender is marked with a microchip similar to those implanted into dogs and cats. By scanning for the microchips we can tell if a tagged hellbender is present beneath a rock.
Each chip provides us with a unique identification number so we know where and when the animal was last seen.
This marking technique has allowed us to study local movements and long-distance migrations. Hellbenders in Kettle Creek are known to move from one population to another, always in an upstream direction and most movements are made by young adult males.
If you see a hellbender while kayaking, fishing, or swimming in Kettle Creek, be sure to give this animal the respect it deserves and let it be. 
If you would like to share your experience with these amazing giants, I would love to hear from you. 
[For more information on programs, initiatives, upcoming events and how you can get involved, visit the Kettle Creek Watershed Association website. Like them on FacebookClick Here to support their work.]

Peter Petokas is a Research Associate with the Lycoming College Clean Water Institute in Williamsport, where he conducts research on vernal pools, amphibians and reptiles, and native and invasive crayfish species. He may be reached by sending email to:

(Reprinted from the 2019 Yearend Newsletter from the Kettle Creek Watershed Association.  
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[Posted: January 2, 2020] 

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