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WVDNR seeks community input on at-risk salamander species

The West Virginia Department of Natural Resources (WVDNR) recently launched a two-year citizen science survey on two species of salamanders native to the state, the Eastern Hellbender and Common Mudpuppy. In order to understand the distribution of these species and develop conservation plans, the DNR is seeking the public’s assistance in gathering data.

Eastern Hellbenders and Common Mudpuppies are the only fully aquatic salamanders native to West Virginia and are listed as species of greatest conservation need in West Virginia’s State Wildlife Action Plan. This is a result of habitat degradation, as these amphibians are sensitive to changes in water quality, including pollution and declining oxygen levels.

“They require high oxygen levels and clean waterways, so that’s one of the reasons these are so important. They are extremely good indicator species of how healthy a stream is because they require such clean and oxygenated streams,” said WVDNR Amphibian and Reptile Program Leader Kevin Oxenrider. If these species are suffering, it is a sign of greater issues in their environment.

In order to accurately and efficiently manage these species, the WVDNR needs to understand where they are most abundant. This is where “citizen scientists” can play an important role in the conservation process.

“Citizen science is such a great way to build these robust datasets that are necessary for us to make these really big decisions in regard to [species conservation statuses], and to be making management decisions for these animals statewide,” said Oxenrider.

Oxenrider’s idea for the project stemmed from anglers sharing photographs of Eastern Hellbenders and Common Mudpuppies in areas previously not known to contain these species. Thus, an opportunity for collaboration with the community was presented.

“Anglers have a lot of information that they can provide,” said Oxenrider. “We saw this as an opportunity to partner with them to get a better understanding of the status of these two species in the state.”

This is also a chance for educational outreach, said Oxenrider. Both Eastern Hellbenders and Common Mudpuppies are often thought to be venomous, aggressive, or detrimental to sport fish populations — but this couldn’t be less true.

“They’re not venomous, they’re not dangerous to people, they’re not eating sport fish,” said Oxenrider. “This is an opportunity for us to do outreach, and try to say, ‘Don’t persecute these animals because of a misconception.’”

To participate in this survey, keep an eye out for Eastern Hellbenders and Common Mudpuppies while fishing or spending time near waterways.

Eastern Hellbenders are likely to be spotted in cool, fast-moving streams and rivers, and are North America’s largest salamander, spanning 12-29 inches. They can be recognized by their lack of external gills, and their number of toes — four on their front feet, five on their back feet.

Common Mudpuppies are typically 8-13 inches, and are also found in streams and rivers, as well as lakes, ponds and reservoirs. Their most notable feature is their bushy, red external gills, earning them the nickname “lasagna lizard.”

For more information or to report a sighting, visit wvdnr.gov/hellbender-mudpuppy-survey.

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