North Chickamauga Creek Conservancy (NCCC), Chattanooga Zoo, and Lee University will conduct traditional and state-of-the-art sampling of North Chickamauga Creek for the elusive Hellbender Salamander on Monday.
Once prominent throughout the Appalachian Mountains and Mid-west, Hellbender populations are in steep decline due to poor stream quality from, primarily, siltation.
The group intends to survey in the North Chickamauga Creek Gorge State Natural Area and portions of the lower watershed in Hixson, by snorkeling in deeper water holes and performing a new technique known as environmental DNA, or eDNA for short.
Gregory Vickrey, director of NCCC, said, “We are excited to work with the folks at Chattanooga Zoo and Lee University on this Hellbender project. The state-of-the-art approach really sets a precedent for our work performing a comprehensive inventory of the entire North Chickamauga Creek watershed.”
Dr. Michael Freake of Lee University will head the Hellbender survey effort in North Chickamauga Creek. Once samples are collected, Dr. Freake will collaborate with Dr. Steve Spear of The University of Idaho to determine the results.
David Hedrick, Lead Ectotherm keeper for Chattanooga Zoo, said, “We are in our fourth season of work in the field and in captivity with this species. Dr. Freake is in his eighth field season. We began this work because breeding populations of Hellbenders have been collapsing over the past thirty years and it is essential that we identify remaining populations and work to protect them. At this point it appears that only three watersheds remain in their historic range that support healthy populations."
Explaining the process, Dr. Spear said, “We can take advantage of the fact that aquatic animals release a lot of DNA in their environment through shedding, waste products, injuries and laying eggs. We can then extract the DNA from a filtered water sample, and if we know a small DNA sequence from our target animal, we can identify it from the water sample.”