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NY Press: Zoo helps hatch salamanders

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Posted by: W von Papineu at Tue Jan 18 12:33:05 2011  [ Report Abuse ] [ Email Message ] [ Show All Posts by W von Papineu ]  
   

BUFFALO NEWS (New York) 12 January 11 Zoo helps hatch salamander scheme (Denise Jewell Gee)
The disappearance of the eastern hellbender has been a bit of a mystery for biologists working to save them.
Two decades ago, scientists started to notice fewer of the giant salamanders in the state's rivers. Since then, fears have grown that the creatures could disappear.
"The numbers have been declining at an alarming rate," said Mark Kandel, regional wildlife manager for the state Department of Environmental Conservation. "We want to make sure there are hellbenders around, when and if we get to the point when we figure out what's causing their demise."
So a team that includes the DEC and Buffalo Zoo is working to give hundreds of the giant salamanders a head start in the wild.
In a lab that will open to public viewing today, the zoo is raising 540 hellbenders from eggs that were collected from a river in the Southern Tier, in hopes of releasing them back into area waterways when they're large enough to better survive.
The effort aims to keep the hellbender — currently listed by the state as a protected species of special concern — off the endangered species list.
"The hellbender recovery team was formed to kind of get ahead of labeling the hellbender as endangered," said Penny Danielewicz, collections manager of reptiles and amphibians for the Buffalo Zoo. "We are working to see if we can use this head start project as a tool in hellbender conservation."
Biologists studying their decline have noticed a gap between eggs that are hatched in the wild and the number that grow to adulthood. They devised a program that involved collecting wild eggs and raised the offspring in the zoo past the point when they are most vulnerable to predators, Kandel said.
"We're not finding many of the younger, middle-aged hellbenders," Kandel said. "And there's any number of reasons why they may not be surviving through that middle part."
The hellbenders in the zoo are just over a year old and have grown to about 3 or 4 inches since they hatched in late 2009. They are scheduled to be released back to the wild in 2013.
"We have had a lot of fun watching them develop and grow because they're such a unique animal," Danielewicz said.
The nocturnal creatures, she said, can whip their bodies back and forth — a characteristic that helped earn their name.
The zoo will give a presentation on the eastern hellbender during its "Warm Up With the Cold-Blooded" event from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday.
Scientists suspect that a number of factors — including changes in habitat, disease and human interaction — could be behind their declining numbers. As they have become more rare, the aquatic salamander has also become the target of poachers.
"We do know that there is some illegal trade in hellbenders," Kandel said. "Especially as their numbers become depleted, protecting the large adults is extremely important because they're the breeders."
The eastern hellbender, which can grow longer than 2 feet, is the largest aquatic salamander in North America.
The DEC has also worked with the Department of Transportation to help replace large rocks used by the hellbenders as habitats in rivers and streams in the Allegheny watershed.
"It's a pretty good example of what it takes to restore a species in decline," Kandel said. "One agency can't do it on their own."
Zoo helps hatch salamander scheme


   

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