On a warm September day, Hannah Kopp and the rest of the Rural Action Watersheds team go out to the Walhonding, Mohican, and Kokosing Rivers to collect water samples. They are collecting samples from July to November, the breeding season of the subject of their project. In partnership with a lab at Ohio University, Ohio State University, and Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District, they are working to protect one of many endangered species in Appalachia: the eastern hellbender.

Eastern hellbenders, known for being the largest salamander in North America and third largest in the world, are dependent on clean streams. A lack of hellbenders in a body of water can mean a variety of habitat harming factors may be present that are keeping the ecosystem from thriving. Hellbenders live under large rocks where fast-moving water is present where they eat crayfish, so a lack of large rocks and suitable habitats might contribute to the declining eastern hellbender population, but Hannah says that this isn’t the only thing the researchers on this project are looking at.

“There’s a pattern we’re finding that in places where hellbenders are found, we are only finding adults,” said Hannah. “That means that there is something happening in their ecosystems that’s preventing the babies from maturing.”

Throughout the two-year project, researchers at Ohio University are installing nest boxes and routinely checking for occupancy. The researchers are also working to protect the declining population by collecting eggs, hatching them, and then eventually reintroducing them back into their natural habitat. Hannah hopes that the project, which is funded by the Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District’s Partners in Watershed Management Grant Program, can help contribute to research and other education efforts surrounding hellbender conservation.

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