Students dig up hellbenders

CLARION, Pa.- For the last eight years, Clarion University’s Biology Department has conducted extensive research on hellbenders. Kurt Regester, Ph.D., Clarion University ecologist, has been leading students in an extra-curricular research project to study these creatures.

Contributed Photo / The Clarion Call Student researchers scoop up a hellbender, a type of salamander that is thriving in western Pa.
Contributed Photo / The Clarion Call
Student researchers scoop up a hellbender, a type of salamander that is thriving in western Pa.

Hellbenders represent a species of flat-headed salamanders with gray skin that is highly permeable. Their permeability helps researchers indicate the health of the environment by the taking in of  oxygen of the stream these creatures are living in.

Regester and his team waded through streams in state parks and other parts of western Pennsylvania. in search of hellbenders. The goal of the project sought  to assess the health of each of the animals, in turn testing the health of the water. As they came across rocks that looked like potential homes, they would work together and lift them as one team member felt around underneath the rock.

Sam Bargerstock, a senior environmental biology major,  paired with Randy Koleck. The two  had the task of collecting skin swabs and epithelial samples to send back to the lab for testing.

Once they collected the samples, the rest of the team processed the animal. They took its measurements and checked it for injuries, scratches and deformations.

If it is a new, untagged animal, they tag it with a microchip and then release it back exactly where they found it. Around 60 to 70 percent of the animals captured each year are already tagged, indicating that a high percentage of them are surviving.

Bargerstock has been volunteering with the project since June, but already feels as though he has gained a lot of great field experience. He has had a lot of fun and enjoys learning techniques from professionals in his field.

Bargerstock also enjoys the fact that he has had the chance to visit state parks and other new places in  the area.

Students sent to a lab lead by Helen Hampikian, Ph.D.,  Hampikian and her students tested for chytrid fungi and Ranavirus by extracting DNA and using molecular screening techniques.

Sarah Minnix, a senior biology major, has been volunteering in lab work since last semester. As part of her experience, she runs tests that make multiple copies of harmful fungus DNA to help determine if a hellbender is infected.

Minnix enjoys the fact that she works to help preserve wildlife. Her future plan is to become a doctor, but she decided to participate in this research because she loves animals. The project will help her contribute a deeper understanding of the infections and hopes that one day this will lead to an effort to help increase survival rates of hellbenders and other amphibians.

Overall, this project has shown that hellbender populations throughout the western part of the commonwealth remainlarge and healthy. Regester is pleased to see these results because hellbenders in neighboring states and the Midwest are not doing well.

Many regions of the world are facing declines in the amphibian populations. The department dedicates itself to conserving the population as it is one of the core populations remaining.

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