Amy McMillan, associate professor of biology, is the first one to say that she’s not a herpetologist. Her graduate work focused on insects, not amphibians or reptiles, and she is an evolutionary biologist who studies population genetics. So why has she published research on the Eastern hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis), and how has she become a frequent collaborator on research about the world’s giant salamanders?
“That’s the thing about Amy,” said Robin Foster, ’04, ‘06. “She dives into things with you. She was my adviser at Buff State, and she always gave me room to explore the things I wanted to explore.”
What Foster wanted to explore was hellbenders. “I did an internship at the Buffalo Zoo,” she said. “I wanted to work with the cats and the elephants, and they offered me the chance to do that, but only if I worked with the herps, too.”
As it turned out, Foster thought the big cats and elephants were all right, but “I fell in love with salamanders and snakes,” she said. “When you get to understand them, they’re so harmless, and they’re so beautiful, and so many people just want to avoid them at best—and kill them at worst.” Working with the amphibians and reptiles appealed to Foster as both a conservation biologist and an educator.
When it came time to choose a master’s project, McMillan presented Foster with a number of options, including a project proposed by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).
“The DEC wanted to do a follow-up study on hellbender populations in the Allegheny River watershed,” Foster said. “A grad student had documented the hellbender population in eight sites in the 1980s, and the DEC wanted to follow up on that research.” Foster jumped on the project.
Hellbenders are North America’s largest salamander. In his memoirs, nineteenth-century author Charles Godfrey Leland described it as “that extraordinary fish lizard…known as the hell-bender from its extreme ugliness.” They are unusual for other reasons: they are completely aquatic, living their entire lives in the water; they can grow to two feet long; and they breathe through their skin. The North American hellbender is one of just three species of giant salamanders in the world; the other two are the Chinese giant salamander and the Japanese giant salamander.
For two years, Foster visited the sites where hellbenders had been found 20 years earlier and counted them again. The results, to a salamander-lover and a conservationist, were distressing: averaged over the eight sites, the population had declined by about 47 percent.
Foster published her research with co-authors McMillan and Kenneth J. Roblee of the NYS DEC. All three are now members of the New York State Hellbender Work Group, which coordinates hellbender conservation efforts. As a result of their findings, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department is considering listing the New York hellbenders as an endangered species. In New York State, hellbenders are classified as a species of “special concern,” meaning the state can take action to protect it. It’s also listed as a protected species in several other states.
Roblee collected hellbender eggs—more than six hundred of them—and took them to the Buffalo Zoo, which shared them with other conservation groups and zoos, including the Bronx Zoo. The Buffalo Zoo, with the DEC and McMillan and her students, has released some of the young hellbenders back into the wild. Recently, the Bronx Zoo also released 40 hellbenders.
“We’re continuing our work with hellbenders,” said McMillan. “Graduate student Meghan Jensen and I presented Jensen’s research on conservation genetics using DNA samples Foster collected.”
Meanwhile, Foster is pursuing her Ph.D. at the University at Buffalo in the evolution, ecology, and behavior program. She hopes to uncover the reason for the hellbenders’ decline. “We have a lot of hypotheses,” she said, “but we don’t really know why the Eastern hellbender is disappearing from our streams.”
“I’m asked that question more than any other question,” Foster said. “For one thing, they are among the canary-in-the-coal-mine species: their decline may be a warning that the water quality is declining.” But it’s clear that for Foster, as for most conservationists, species preservation is an end in itself.
“In the late 1800s, there were targeted campaigns to kill off hellbenders,” she said. “People thought they were vicious animals that depleted fish populations. But they aren’t vicious; I’ve handled more than 200 of them, and I’ve never been bitten. They eat mostly crayfish; they’re not voracious predators of fish or fish eggs. And they’re a living fossil. They haven’t changed from the time of the dinosaurs. They are a treasure that has survived here in New York State for millions and millions of years, and I can’t bear the idea of losing them without a fight.”