OLEAN, N.Y. (WIVB) - They may creep you out, but the state is working hard in the southern tier to save one of the largest salamanders in North America.
In a tributary of the Allegheny River, News 4 followed technicians with the State Department of Environmental Conservation in search of the Eastern Hellbender Salamander.
DEC Senior Wildlife Biologist Ken Roblee said, "Unless you know where to look, you're probably not going to see them. It really is a fantastic animal and we want to keep it here in New York."
News 4's George Richert helped man one of the nets as the team flipped over the largest rocks they could find. Within ten minutes we caught one measuring about 14 inches long. Most of the salamanders grow to two-feet long.
"The Hellbender salamander is really the gem of New York state natural history. This body form has been around since the time of the dinosaurs," Roblee said.
Hellbenders actually breathe through a flap of skin on the side of their bodies, like a gill on a fish, except those flaps run the entire length of their bodies. They eat crayfish and thrive under very large rocks.
But they are now endangered in four other states, so the DEC is tagging these Hellbenders with microchips to monitor their survival and also taking swabs to look for certain viruses and fungi.
Using the revenue from hunting and fishing licenses, the DEC has preserved wetlands and brought back the Bald Eagle. Most people will never see these slimy critters, but they are a part of the food chain.
"We're at the northern part of their range. They're very rare here," Roblee noted. "With just some effort, we can probably keep them for future generations and they're very amazing and interesting animals to watch and observe."
"The Seneca Nation has provided a lot of support and assistance in studying Hellbenders, even diving to do surveys. We also are getting support from Buffalo State in terms of research."
The Buffalo Zoo is also raising over 300 of the rare salamanders right now in its reptile exhibit, to release into the Allegheny River watershed next summer. And the State Department of Transportation is helping, too. For Hellbenders, the bigger the rock, the beet. The DOT has delivered rocks to the Allegheny watershed to aid their survival.
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