The Eastern hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis alleganiensis) is listed as an endangered species in Ohio and is considered to be a Species of Greatest Need of Conservation in every state in which it occurs. Populations of the Eastern hellbender have declined in distribution and abundance due to a variety of anthropogenic factors. The objective of the current study was to conduct health assessments for hellbender populations in both Ohio and West Virginia to establish baseline information and lay groundwork for future studies evaluating the impact of various environmental factors on hellbender health.
Health assessments were performed on hellbenders captured as a part of ongoing hellbender population surveys in Ohio and West Virginia during the natural breeding season (June to September) in 2006–2008. Physical examinations were conducted on all individuals and included body weight, snout-vent length, blood collection for hematology and serum chemistry, skin swabs for chytridiomycosis (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis) identification (PCR), and cloacal swabs for Ranavirus (family Iridoviridae) detection (PCR). To date, a total of 73 animals have been sampled in Ohio and West Virginia (n=32 [OH], n=41 [WV]). Hellbender populations in Ohio and West Virginia differ significantly with respect to hematologic profiles. Specifically, Ohio hellbenders demonstrate a higher proportion of lymphocytes (µ±sem: 70.3±2.5%) than West Virginia hellbenders (60.4±2.3%, p<0.01); whereas, West Virginia hellbenders show a higher proportion of heterophils (30.2±2.0 vs. 20.4±2.1%, p<0.01), total protein (1.46±0.13 vs. 1.01±0.09 g/dl, p<0.01), and globulin levels (1.85±0.11 vs. 1.55±0.06 g/dl, p<0.05) compared to Ohio hellbenders. Interestingly, during the sampling period of June to September, it appears that serum calcium levels are higher in female (9.9±0.5 mg/dl) than in male hellbenders (7.3±0.1 mg/dl) in both states (p<0.01). Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis has been identified in both Ohio (n=1; 2007) and West Virginia (n=3; 2007) hellbender populations. These data provide a reference point that will be utilized to continue the health monitoring program and will help to direct further research to identify specific factors impacting hellbender populations in Ohio and West Virginia.
This work was sponsored by the Nature Conservancy of Ohio, Oglebay Resort, and the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources.