THV 11's Liz Massey with an Ozark Hellbender! (Photo: Michelle Chism, KTHV)
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (KTHV) - Hellbender homes are being destroyed. They are dying. Their population is quickly on the decline, but there is help.
THV 11's Liz Massey went on the hunt for the Ozark Hellbender
. She went on a journey of discovery on the Eleven Point River in Randolph County. Beneath the waters, her adventure began.
"They're going to be cool and if they get excited they exude a large amount of slime, so they wind up getting kind of sticky," said Kelly Irwin, a Herpetologist with Arkansas Game and Fish.
With Irwin leading, the team dove in to see if their hard work to save the Hellbenders is paying off.
"Well they're a large and not necessarily cuddly animal," said Irwin as he described the strange looking creature. "An Ozark Hellbender is a large fully aquatic salamander, means they live in the water full time."
Irwin said you can't find them anywhere else in the world except the Ozarks of southern Missouri in Northern Arkansas. And, while this is where they live, it's also where they're dying.
The team was able to find one on the mission, but these findings are rare, especially since in 2011, the Ozark Hellbender became a federally endangered species.
"Well Ozark Hellbenders in Arkansas used to occur in the Spring River, the north fork of the White River and the Eleven Point River which we're on today, and this Eleven Point River is the only place you can find them now in the state of Arkansas. For example, back in the early 1980s, the researchers on the Spring River had found almost 365 hellbenders in about a 3 to 4 mile stretch of river. We did a survey there from 2003 to 2006 and found only 12 individuals. So, I consider the Spring River population is now extinct," said Irwin.
Irwin, along with Jeff Briggler, a Herpetologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation and Trisha Crabill with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Missouri are trying to save them.
"Every piece of the puzzle is important; every organism serves a function in the ecosystem. One of the primary problems we're seeing obviously is bank erosion, and the upper watershed inputs for all the sediments and fine sands and gravels, and heavy flood events will come along and smother the rocky habitats that these animals require," explained Irwin.
To help their chances of survival, Briggler developed a nesting box which Arkansas Game and Fish duplicated here with hopes a Hellbender would move in and better yet, lay eggs.
The team sank 39 artificial nesting boxes into the river in July. They came back for the first time to check, and so far, they've found six adults and one egg clutch-that's 450 to 500 eggs. And they found three more hellbenders living under rocks. For this team, that's a huge win.
"It was awesome, Jeff and I were high fiving underwater, I was yucking it up for the camera, and he caught one of me smiling as I took my regulator out and thumbs up, so it was a great moment," Irwin exclaimed.
Habitat loss is not the only concern for the Ozark Hellbenders. Irwin said they're also battling a fungal disease.
"Although we do not know whether it causes the death of the animal or not, we know that it is here. We also find animals now that are losing their toes and even their entire foot," said Irwin.
While they may have a number of things working against them, the Ozark Hellbenders have a number of people working for them.
"I feel as the Ozark Hellbender population goes, so goes the quality of our sport fisheries in these rivers. They are unique to the Ozark Plateau-something I think Arkansans should take pride in," Irwin concluded.
Irwin's been surveying the Eleven Point since 2005. He goes in to count Hellbenders every other year and usually finds about 40.
And, THV 11 also wanted to say a special thanks to Bret Ditto and Bill Buck with Arkansas Game and Fish. They volunteered to take Liz and the news crew out on the river in a second boat so they could tell this story.