WEST LIBERTY — In a quiet biology lab at West Liberty University, there’s a whole lot of ugly going on.
In aquariums located throughout the room, large black salamanders swim about. Their lumpy bodies and tiny eyes make them seem almost alien. They’re hellbenders, the biggest salamanders in the Western Hemisphere, and their job in the lab is simple — to grow large enough to survive in the wild.
Since 2007, biologists and students at West Liberty have been helping to restore threatened hellbender populations by taking eggs from wild salamander nests and hatching them in the lab.
The driving force behind the project is Joe Greathouse, a teacher at the school and the former animal curator at the nearby Oglebay Good Zoo.
“When I was at the Good Zoo, I was looking for some type of local conservation project we could do,” Greathouse recalled. “I wanted to find something close by, something that had a limited home range. I looked at species in the Northern Panhandle, and hellbenders stood out in my mind.”
The zoo received a grant from the Division of Natural Resources in 2004 to study the hellbender population in Brooke County’s Buffalo Creek. The study eventually expanded to other Northern Panhandle streams.
In 2007, the project morphed into what it is today.
“We were doing field surveys, and we found a hellbender nest that was partially infected with fungus,” Greathouse said. “I called [the DNR’s] Walt Kordek and asked if we could bring the eggs back to the zoo’s lab and try to hatch them.
“We brought the eggs in, took care of them, and they hatched. It was the first time any zoo in the world had hatched hellbender eggs.”
Greathouse and his colleagues began looking for places to put the young hellbenders. A study conducted in 2010 found hellbenders in just 13 rivers, 18 fewer than in the 1930s.
By 2010, the young salamanders grown from Greathouse’s salvaged egg clutch had grown big enough to release back to the wild. The first stockings went to Buffalo Creek and to the Cherry River in Nicholas County.
“In terms of habitat, the Cherry was the best stream in the state that didn’t have hellbenders,” Greathouse said. “After we did the translocations, we tracked the individuals we’d introduced on each stream for one year.
“On Buffalo Creek, about 50 percent of those individuals survived. On the Cherry, we found about 70 percent survival. Generally, with amphibians it’s considered a success to get a 20 percent survival rate. Fifty and 70 percent were phenomenal.”
The results were encouraging enough to convince Greathouse to continue raising and releasing young hellbenders. He knew he couldn’t bring in adults and expect them to breed; doing so would require an enormous investment of lab space and time.
“It was a lot more efficient to collect eggs from the wild and raise them,” he said. “We get a lot more genetic diversity with that approach than we would if we ran a breeding program. When we get a clutch from the wild, it might have genetic material from two or three females and two or three males. We end up greatly enhancing our gene pool for future reintroductions.”
The rearing program now involves roughly 1,000 animals — 400 at West Liberty, 400 at The Wilds and 100 at the Good Zoo. Each stocking places 30 more hellbenders back into the wild, although Greathouse said he wants to bump that number into the 50-100 range for some streams.
To help the young hellbenders survive after they’re stocked, lab workers have started trying to teach them to take cover when predators are around.
“River otters, mink and raccoons are the principal predators,” Greathouse explained. “One of the things we’re doing in the lab is to introduce the scents of those animals while encouraging the hellbenders to take shelter.
“We can track the scents by dye to see how long it takes to get to them. If they don’t get under the rocks when the scent gets to them, we take a puppet and scare them until they do. We’re trying to condition them to move away from potential predators. They need to know ‘these are bad and we need to get away.’”
Greathouse said the hellbender program gets much of its support from grants and corporations.
“The DNR has been very good with us,” he added. “They’ve supported the project for about 12 years. And we’re going to start a new grant cycle with the Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies for a DNA study. We also get help from the Williams Corp., a natural-gas transmission company that’s very much into conservation. They funded our lab here.”
No one yet knows whether the reintroduction program can reverse decades of population losses, but Greathouse hopes it might.
“The biggest threat is sedimentation,” he said. “They do best in clear, rocky streams. In West Virginia, most of those are up in the mountains of the Monongahela National Forest. Wherever we have good habitat, our program has a chance to make a difference.”
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