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.
“It all started with a Forensic Files episode. They used diatoms to link the assailants and the crime scene, and I just thought they were so beautiful. I love how something so small can have such large applications.”
Shelly Wu’s fascination with diatoms began her sophomore year at Loyola University New Orleans. As a biology major, Wu knew she wanted to pursue a life of science, though lacked a specific focus. One evening at home, Wu stumbled upon the NBC series that would lead her to specialize in diatoms.
Video, Diatoms in Action
Diatoms are a major group of algae that appear in nearly every major body of water. Though small in size, these microorganisms have big applications – like forensics, water quality, even filtering beer. Diatoms often attach to turtle shells and establish themselves as part of a microhabitat, which is of particular interest to scientists.
Currently, only two papers have been published on turtle shell diatoms – both on Amazonian species. But Wu hopes to change that. Thanks to a prestigious summer internship funded by the National Science Foundation, Wu was awarded $4,000 to research diatoms on Oklahoma turtle shells beneath Sam Noble Museum herpetology curator Cameron Siler.
Wu in the field
“During such a difficult time to educate younger generations of researchers about the importance and incredibly broad utility of these collections, it is always exciting to see students develop novel approaches to working in natural history museums,” said Siler.
Through her research, which began in March, Wu hopes to answer three major questions. Do different turtle species support different species of diatoms? Are diatom species on a turtle host selective for particular microhabitats on the turtle’s shell? How do diatom communities on the common snapping turtle and red-eared slider vary across different regions of the US? To answer these questions, Wu is sampling, analyzing and comparing the microhabitats of five Oklahoma turtle species.
Wu studies Oklahoma’s common snapping turtle
“I sample six specific areas of the shell using a brush and circular plastic tube,” Wu explained. “I place the tube over the area, circle the brush 10 times and move to the next spot. Then I use a light microscope to examine the sample.”
In order to access the needed research material, Wu works closely with Liz Bergey from the Oklahoma Biological Survey and museum herpetology collection manager Jessa Watters. As a graduate student at the University of Oklahoma, Wu’s work will also help to develop her master’s thesis on the possible relationship between diatoms, algae dispersion and turtle migration.
“Down the road it would be nice to know which diatoms are on live turtles,” said Wu. “It could help us better understand the relationship between algae dispersion and turtle migration.”
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.
We told you today’s edition of “Inside the Treasure Box” would be big, and that’s no bull. In May 1995, the largest recorded American bullfrog, Rana catesbeiana, in North America was collected from Bishop Creek in Norman, Oklahoma. Although specimens tend to shrink slightly during preservation, this bullfrog was just over eight inches long and weighed two pounds in life. Crazy, right?
In 1996, a retired University of Oklahoma professor, Victor Hutchison, and two of his students wrote an article recording the frog’s size, which was then published in the Herpetological Review, an academic journal for professionals in herpetology. Hutchinson and his students also mailed a submission to the Guinness Book of World Records.
Unfortunately, the record was beat in 1999 by another American bullfrog found in Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. This frog, collected in 1942, came in at a whopping 8.66 inches long and continues to hold the record for largest American bullfrog in North America to this day. If the specimen from Bishop Creek had been selected by Guinness, it would have been the Sam Noble Museum’s second world-record holding piece, the other being the Pentaceratops skull currently on exhibit.
You want to see more, right? Of course you do! We’ve got all kinds of prehistoric, slimy and brightly-plumed treasures headed your way, so stay tuned as we make our way through the best of the best from each of our eleven collections. Remember, “Inside the Treasure Box” is an eleven-week blogging series, so be sure to pencil us in for the next few Wednesdays. Got it? Good. It’s a date.
See you next week!
When you think of endangered species, you may draw to mind pictures of Giant Pandas and Black Rhinos, but would you ever picture a bullfrog from your own backyard? According to Save the Frogs, an American public charity dedicated to preserving these amiable amphibians, 2,000 amphibian species are threatened with extinction and may not survive the 21st century.
The last Saturday in April is now internationally known as Save the Frogs Day, a day of bringing awareness to this pressing matter. This year, the Sam Noble Museum’s herpetology collection manager, Jessa Watters, traveled to Cesar Chavez Elementary School in Oklahoma City to celebrate Save the Frogs Day with seven kindergarten classes, while teaching them a thing or two about preservation.
Watters teaching students about frog endangerment.
According to Watters, a quarter of the world’s amphibian populations are in decline due to habitat pollution, pet trade, pesticides and an amphibian fungal disease known as chytridiomycosis. Pet trade poses one of the largest threats as frogs are taken from their natural environment and improperly cared for in artificial habitats. On the flip side, problems arise when frog owners release unwanted pets into the wrong habitat, which can create a domino effect of difficulties in a given ecosystem.
Of course, this is a lot of information for kindergarteners to absorb, so Watters focused on teaching the students the basics of herpetology: What is an amphibian? How is it different than a reptile? Is it better to be camouflaged or poisonous as a frog? Watters and the children then drew and colored pictures of frogs while discussing the importance of taking care of the environment and the animals that dwell in it.
The students coloring their favorite frogs.
At the end of the day, each student took home a 3D paper frog as a reminder that every day should be Save the Frogs Day.