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Eastern hellbender salamander may warrant endangered status in New York

Because hellbenders fill such a specialized ecological niche, they're both easy to find and severely limited by geographic constraints.

By
Brooks Hays
A federal wildlife official handles a hellbender salamander. Gary Peeples/USFWS
A federal wildlife official handles a hellbender salamander. Gary Peeples/USFWS

ALBANY, N.Y., Nov. 24 (UPI) -- The eastern hellbender -- a subspecies of the giant salamander (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis) endemic to eastern North America -- may soon be listed as endangered in the state of New York. Last week, a group of scientists and environmentalists filed a petition with New York State Department of Environmental Conservation calling for greater protection of the amphibian.

In 1983, New York conservation officials designated the eastern hellbender as a "special concern species of New York state." The species -- one of the world's largest salamanders -- is already considered endangered in Maryland, Ohio, Illinois, Iowa and Indiana. It is listed as threatened in Alabama, and populations are thought to be quickly decreasing in Kentucky. In other words, the hellbender is on the ropes throughout the entirety of its habitat range.

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Habitat destruction and pollution have played a significant role in diminishing regional populations of eastern hellbenders, but researchers say much damage has been done by commercial collecting.

"Disease, pollution, contaminants, predation, or interspecific competition threatens the continued survival of the species in New York," petitioners wrote in their plea to conservation officials. "Existing regulatory mechanisms are insufficient to protect the species or its habitat."

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Because hellbenders fill such a specialized ecological niche, they're both easy to find and severely limited by geographic constraints. The flat-bodied salamanders, which can grow up to two feet in length, prefer freestone streams with low levels of dissolved oxygen and fast moving water.

These preferences make their location easy to predict for collectors. "One could find a specimen under almost every suitable rock," one commercial collector recounted in a report from the 1940s. Unfortunately, that is no longer the case.

Another hellbender subspecies, the ozark hellbender, endemic to Arkansas and Missouri, is federally protected. A state listing in New York may precipitate a decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the ozark's eastern relative.

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