Dangerous Swimming for Ozark Hellbenders

As we approach Halloween, our thoughts may turn to ghoulish slimy creatures lurking among us, like hellbenders, among the largest salamander species in the world. But exotic animals often has more to fear from us than the other way around. Amphibious hellbenders are swimming in dangerous waters in part because people poach and sell them. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently designated them as an endangered species. The Allegheny Frontís Dennis Funk has more.

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HOST: As we approach Halloween, our thoughts may turn to ghoulish slimy creatures lurking among us, like hellbenders, among the largest salamander species in the world. But exotic animals often has more to fear from us than the other way around. Amphibious hellbenders are swimming in dangerous waters in part because people poach and sell them. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently designated them as an endangered species. The Allegheny Frontís Dennis Funk has more.

FUNK: Eastern and Ozark Hellbenders both belong to a species of slimy, mud colored salamanders that can grow to lengths of nearly two feet. Unlike their cousins that live in many northeastern and midwest states, Ozark Hellbenders only inhabit the fast moving waters of the White River system in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas.

Though only the Ozark species is now endangered, Tom Hayes, an aquarist at the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium, said Eastern and Ozark Hellbenders face similar threats, such as poaching. They can fetch about a thousand dollars on the black market, where theyíre sold for pets and medicinal purposes.

HAYES: It is something to be concerned about because when the indicator species start to die that could be us next because we're consumers and we need the water too.

FUNK: Both hellbender species are extremely sensitive to minor changes in the waters they inhabit. Disruption to streams and chemical run-off caused by industrial and agricultural development alters their habitat, making it difficult for them to find food and breed.
Since many locations havenít been sampled in over 50 years, it's hard to tell whether eastern hellbenders are in serious danger. The Western Pennsylvania Conservancy has been surveying streams in the last several years to determine the animalís health.

For The Allegheny Front, I'm Dennis Funk.