October 2013

Hellbenders and Snapping Turtles

Now here's something you don't see every day - a guy wearing a wet suit, snorkel and mask, standing in the middle of a swift-running river. It gets better.
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Bill Hopkins with Eastern Hellbender
Adult Snapping Turtles are long-lived and make great subjects for studying the effects of pollution on ecosystems.

He lowers his mask and ducks in the water, groping around, searching. The water is a bit murky; it's hard to imagine how anyone could see anything - even with a mask on. Next thing you know, Bill Hopkins, an associate professor of fish and wildlife conservation at Virginia Tech, re-surfaces and he's holding something about a foot long that's squirming and doing its best to leap back into the water.

Bill has found, mostly by feel and know-how, a Hellbender (aka Grumpus, Mud Dog and Snot Otter) - a prime example of north america's largest salamander. No one really knows how they got their unfortunate name. One legend has early settlers speculating that they were creatures from Hell, bent on returning.

Eastern Hellbenders can reach a length of up to feet and weigh up to five pounds. They're numbers are dwindling and they're on the list for being considered as a threatened species. Fishermen sometimes blame Hellbenders for competing with humans for edible fish. However, according to Bill Hopkins, 90% of the Hellbender's diet is crayfish.

"When you find a stream that harbors a large number of Hellbenders, it’s a good sign," says Hopkins. "It tells us something about the conditions in that stream – that it’s well-oxygenated, that there’s not too much silt, that there aren’t too many pollutants, and it’s a resource that we should be proud of – that we should cherish."

Hopkins is an ecotoxicologist, who studies the effects of pollution and toxins on the reproductive health of animals like Hellbenders and Snapping Turtles.

For more information about Bill Hopkins' research visit Bill Hopkin's Wildlife Ecotoxicology Program

Watch a video of Bill Hopkins finding that Hellbender, as if by magic.