Biologists’ Clever Way to Detect Animals They Can’t Find – Facts So Romantic

A hellbender at the National Zoo in WashingtonBrian Gratwicke via Flickr

Wildlife doesn’t get much weirder than the hellbender, a frilly, crayfish-gobbling salamander, about the length of a baby alligator, whose bizarre aliases include “snot otter,” “devil dog,” and “grampus.” The giant amphibian stalks rocky streambeds throughout the eastern United States—or at least it did, until agriculture, deforestation, and dams ruined water quality and habitats throughout much of its range. These days, scientists aren’t certain where snot otters still roam.

“They like to hide under big rocks, they’re nocturnal, and they blend in perfectly with the stream bottom,” says Andy Adams, a Loyola University biology professor who hasn’t spotted a hellbender since he was himself an undergraduate. “Even people who study them rarely see them.”

The creature’s scarcity and secretive habits have created a dilemma for conservation. How can agencies protect hellbenders when they can’t even be sure where they are? The answer: Environmental DNA, or eDNA, the scientific technique that’s revolutionizing aquatic biology.

For decades, searching for snot otters required scientists to spend long days crawling along streambeds and flipping rocks—a method that was arduous, disruptive to salamanders, and fraught with uncertainty. By contrast, eDNA could hardly be more convenient, for…
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