Oklahoma's number one blog for natural and cultural history.
First things first. What on earth is a hellbender? Often called “snot otters” or “old lasagna sides”, the hellbender is a large salamander that can grow up to two and half feet long. Rivers throughout Missouri, Arkansas and much of the southeastern U.S. once supported up to 8,000 wild hellbenders, but today fewer than 600 exist because of habitat modification.
Photo by Brian Gratwicke
“Most aquatic salamanders have gills, but these don’t,” herpetology collection manager Jessa Watters explained. “They have flaps running down the side of their bodies to take in more oxygen directly through their skin. If there is silting or pollution in the water, the hellbenders have more of their body to clog than other aquatic species.”
Because of this unique anatomy, hellbenders require fast-flowing, unpolluted rivers. The silting Watters described can be a consequence of damming, which can stir up loose particles in the water and reduce water flow. Silting and other pollutants have caused a rapid decline in the hellbender population. In fact, current populations are only 30 percent of what they were in 1990.
Siltation of a waterway
“We are now seeing species once reported to be healthy but with small recognized ranges becoming exceedingly threatened and rarely encountered in the wild,” said Cameron Siler, herpetology curator. “Recognizing these population trends early and acting immediately to identify critical habitat for protection is necessary for the survival of rare species on our planet.”
According to Watters, the most important thing is stabilizing the hellbender population by preventing further decline and fostering conservation research and initiatives. As an International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) near-threatened species, the hellbender is protected at a federal level. However, populations will continue to decline unless governmental action also protects undammed rivers. In the meantime, zoos are stepping in to help save the hellbender.
Hellbenders developing in eggs, photo via Saint Louis Zoo
In November of 2011, the Saint Louis Zoo celebrated the world’s first captive breeding of hellbenders. The decade-long effort yielded 63 hellbenders. Since then, the Saint Louis Zoo has successfully bred an additional three populations, introducing over 214 new hellbenders to the world. The Saint Louis Zoo’s breeding success is an example of effective and applied research.
“The more we know about every endangered species, the more we understand what conservation methods work best,” Watters said. “The more examples of endangered species that we have, the more we can better protect them in the future.”
A hellbender from our herpetology collection
Want a closer look? The museum’s hellbender specimen will be on display beginning Sept. 13 as part of our newest exhibit, RARE: Portraits of America’s Endangered Species. For more information, check out some documentaries like the one below about this curious creature.
When you think of endangered animals, what are the first species that come to mind? You likely imagine mighty rhinos, herds of elephants or maybe a bale of sea turtles. Often when we consider conservation, we picture exotic fauna located thousands of miles away. But what about those threatened species living in our own backyards?
A monarch butterfly from the Sam Noble Museum entomology collection
The monarch butterfly is a native species in Oklahoma and surrounding states. According to the World Wildlife Fund, it is also a near threatened species–but private collecting, museums and science field trips are not to blame. The biggest influence on the decline of monarchs is the loss of milkweed– a plant that monarch caterpillars feed upon as they grow. This is due to significant land development. Without milkweed, monarchs cannot complete their life cycle as they morph from a caterpillar into a butterfly.
Every winter, monarch butterflies migrate hundreds of miles. This migration, known as overwintering, is one of nature’s most intriguing phenomena. Monarchs use a magnetic understanding of Earth’s poles to guide them south to escape the cold northern winter. Millions of monarchs migrate from the northern U.S. plains and Canada to a few locations in either Mexico or California, and these butterflies return to the same sites each year. It takes several generations to complete a single migration, and in 1997, it was estimated that 1,200,000 butterflies landed per migration site!
“They have a very strong geographic preference, and it’s not exactly known why,” explained Andy Boring, recent invertebrates collection manager. “During the overwintering period, you may have hundreds on one tree and none on a tree twenty feet away.”
In 1997, those million-plus monarchs settled at multiple locations covering nearly a mile each. Now a mere 200,000 monarchs are overwintering on less than 1/100 of a square mile per site. That’s barely larger than six neighborhood homes. Over the past two decades, the monarch population has experienced a 90 percent drop from roughly one billion individuals to just 33 million.
Scientists like Boring track and monitor the populations of monarchs and other invertebrates, studying characteristics, habitats and breeding habits. In turn, they use this information to develop local and global conservation strategies. Occasionally, they even offer counsel on land management decisions that could impact threatened species.
“I think this sort of action-driven research should become more common,” Boring said. “I think that it’s a local service that most people overlook.”
But there is something you can do, too. By planting milkweed and other nectar-producing plants in your home garden, you can help foster a successful monarch migration. Milkweed typically blooms in Oklahoma during the month of May, as butterflies migrate through the sooner state throughout spring and summer. Milkweed seeds are inexpensive and can be purchased online or seasonally at your local gardening store.
Butterfly gardens like the one at the museum help foster monarch migration
“If enough people planted milkweed in their gardens, it could make a substantial difference,” Boring said. “The key is to help this species complete their life cycle.”
A full-grown monarch
To help foster a monarch-friendly habitat, you can also refrain from using herbicides that may damage milkweed and other plants. You may also help track populations as a citizen scientist or support existing conservation efforts. To learn more about local conservation, be sure to visit our newest exhibit RARE: Portraits of America’s Endangered Species–opening Saturday, Sept. 13, 2014.
Okay. It’s time we talk about the white elephant in the room. Every day, poachers kill an estimated 100 African elephants for their meat, body parts and ivory tusks. And it doesn’t help that the price of ivory has shot through the roof. Today the street value of an elephant tusk is about $15,000, and in China a single tusk can bring in $100,000 to $200,000! Of course, poaching is nothing new—but global conservation is.
Elephant poachers circa 1900
In 2009, the Department of Fish and Wildlife seized two carved elephant femurs at the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. The bones were donated to us in 2010 and added to our mammalogy collection. Unfortunately, these femurs weren’t the first of their kind. Over the years, the museum has also received a wastebasket and end table made of elephant feet, plus three ivory tusks—one of which is intricately carved like the femur below.
One of two carved elephant femurs
We didn’t share all of this to ruin your Tuesday. Actually, today happens to be World Elephant Day, a day for elephant-lovers, scientists and everyone in between. Today is all about spreading awareness and taking action to save wild elephant populations—before it’s too late.
In case you didn’t know, the Sam Noble Museum is all about conservation. Our curators are constantly working on new research to help foster biodiversity in the wild. And as a vehicle for science education, we’re also big on spreading awareness about wildlife endangerment and protection. On Saturday, Sept. 13, we will welcome our newest exhibit Rare: Portraits of America’s Endangered Species. Through museum specimens and photos by Joel Sartore, this exhibit tells the story of America’s endangered and extinct species. The elephant femurs above will also be displayed within this exhibit.
Columbia Basin Pygmy Rabbit, Brachylagus idahoensis
c. Joel Sartore, Rare: Portraits of America’s Endangered Species
Whether it is an elephant or one of the species featured in Rare, wild animals need our help. As you can see from our collection, poaching is alive and well—even in Oklahoma. Whether you sign a petition, spare a dollar or tweet to all of your followers, we hope you take a minute to get involved in World Elephant Day. They say an elephant never forgets, but how will we remember them after extinction?
You will not find one perched beside Danerys Targaryen or on the roof at Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Prince Charming does not slay one, and Hiccup the Viking will not teach you how to train one. Yet the Sailfin dragon is more than just literature and legend.
The Sailfin dragon is real – and in danger.
A Sailfin dragon, photographed by Scott Corning
The Sailfin lizard, commonly known as the Sailfin dragon, is one the most secretive species on the planet and also one of the hottest commodities in illegal pet trading. In fact, until recently, scientists were unaware of the Sailfin’s existence entirely. But thanks to thirty years of research, the endangerment of this magnificent species may soon draw to an end.
In collaboration with Rafe Brown and Andres Lira from the University of Kansas, in addition to the Philippine National Museum and the Biodiversity Management Bureau, Sam Noble Museum herpetology curator Cameron Siler has spent the past ten years studying these elusive creatures in hopes of answering two questions.
1. Where is genetic diversity distributed for this species?
2. How can this knowledge be applied to the illegal pet trade?
To answer these questions, herpetologists conducted 40,000-50,000 biological surveys across 7,100 islands in the Philippines. What’s a biological survey, you ask? Essentially, researchers conduct surveys in rainforests to document all species present at a site. Then, they collect vouchered specimens and tissue samples that represent each species in global natural history collections. Genetic samples are used to develop a DNA database that allows herpetologist to construct phylogenies, or family trees, that illustrate relationships between species.
The Philippines on a world map
“It’s always a great feeling to have an example of an applied conservation approach to what we do in a natural history museum,” said Siler. “We stockpile the world’s biodiversity, yet a lot of people don’t know why we do it or what it gets used for.”
But how does this keep Sailfins off the black market?
To establish sustainable homes for the Sailfins, scientists must first understand what types of habitats these lizards prefer. Then, by cataloguing the locations of all vouchered individuals (museum specimens), researchers can check to see what proportion of Sailfin habitats are government protected – and that’s exactly what the team did.
But according to Siler, the findings were “astonishing”.
Although the Sailfin lizards are considered a vulnerable species, less than 10 percent of their suitable habitat is currently being protected. But that’s not all. Every single specimen surveyed at one of the major Filipino pet markets came from peninsula in northeastern Philippines. Yet only 0.8 percent of this land is protected.
All specimens from local pet markets stemmed from just one peninsula
According to Siler, these findings are terrifying but promising. If illegal pet trade specimens are being collected from one isolated region, enforcement of local conservation laws will be more controllable.
“Knowing this, there actually can be more of a directed conservation effort in this region,” Siler said. “That’s an exciting result of combining DNA studies with vouchered biodiversity collections in natural history museums.”
Siler, Brown and their collaborative team plan to continue their research in July 2014, thanks to a RAPID grant from the National Science Foundation. This expedited grant allows the researchers to continue collecting biological surveys in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan, which devastated much of the Philippines in 2013.
So, what does this mean for the Sailfins?
The more herpetologists understand about this rare species, the more local governments can implement effective conservation regulation. Although the story of the Sailfin dragon is not yet concluded, researchers are looking forward to a new chapter – a chapter of knowledge, a chapter of change.
1914: The first stone of the Lincoln Memorial is placed in Washington D.C. Charlie Chaplain stars in his second film, “The Tramp”. Doctors complete the first successful blood transfusion in Brussels, and World War I begins. When looking back on this most historic year, one critical event is often overlooked– the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon.
The Passenger Pigeon in 1898
With a population between 3 and 5 billion birds, the Passenger Pigeon was once the most abundant bird in North America, and possibly even the world. Written accounts describe how flocks would darken the sky for hours and days, and how the beating wings sent a chilling draft down from the sky. However, in just a few decades, the species became extinct.
Passenger Pigeon shooting illustration
Human exploitation, namely hunting and commerce, destroyed nearly every major nesting area over the course of 40 years. No one documented a successful mass nesting during this time, which had in the past contributed greatly to the survival of the species. This bird occurred only in North America and was no stranger to the Sooner State.
Prior to the twentieth century, the Passenger Pigeon often frequented eastern Oklahoma during winter. It is even possible that a handful of lesser-known Oklahoma landmarks were named after this species: Pigeon School (Cherokee County), Pigeon Roost Church (Choctaw and Seminole counties), Pigeon Creek (Latimer and Le Flore counties) and Pigeon Mountain (Le Flore County).
Le Flore County has two sites named for the Passenger Pigeon
Unfortunately, the story of the Passenger Pigeon is not the only tale of exploitation and extinction. Now, The Chicago Academy of Sciences and its Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum are using this tragedy as a cautionary tale through a notable conservation initiative, Project Passenger Pigeon.
According to the project website, the international campaign seeks to promote awareness about the Passenger Pigeon and other endangered species while encouraging people to take action against human-caused extinction. Ultimately, the project is about fostering biodiversity by prompting people to question their role in the larger ecological community.
As a strong advocate of wildlife conversation, The Sam Noble Museum commends the work being done by Project Passenger Pigeon and other similar efforts. From Sept. 13 to Jan. 18, the Sam Noble Museum will showcase portraits of engendered and extinct species, including the Passenger Pigeon, as part of the exhibit Rare.
Red Wolf (Canis rufus), photographed at Great Plains Zoo, Sioux Falls, S.D.
If Project Passenger Pigeon has inspired you to get involved, there are several environmental advocacy groups to join: The Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council, The Sierra Club, Conservation International and Wildlife Conservation Society, to name a few. Of course, joining an organization isn’t the only way to support conservation efforts.
"You could become informed about conservation issues, volunteer in community environmental projects or become a citizen scientist,” suggests Janet Braun, staff curator. “You could also join or donate to a museum or conservation organization while living and promoting a conservation lifestyle.”
Scientists estimate that there are over 8.7 million species of living organisms on Earth at this time. Biodiversity is a precious thing that must be protected, as the tale of the Passenger Pigeon reminds us. They say that history always repeats itself - but by promoting the conservation of species and habitat, perhaps we can build a better tomorrow from yesterday’s mistakes.