W.Va. launches citizen science survey of hellbenders, mudpuppies

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W.Va. launches citizen science survey of hellbenders, mudpuppies
A hellbender gazes back at the camera from an aquarium exhibit. (Photo courtesy W.Va. Dept. of Commerce)

SOUTH CHARLESTON, W.Va. — To learn more about the distribution of odd-looking hellbenders and mudpuppies, the W.Va. Division of Natural Resources has launched a citizen science project to track sightings of these important but declining salamanders around the state.

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The project, which will take two years to complete, gives anglers, science enthusiasts and public members a chance to help division biologists map the distribution of hellbenders and mudpuppies and protect these unique amphibians and their habitats.

Kevin Oxenrider, project leader for the study, says the strange-looking hellbender is harmless and a highly desirable member of the riparian community in the Appalachian Mountains.

“While hellbenders and mudpuppies might look fearsome and strange, these salamanders are harmless to humans and sportfish populations and play a big part in keeping our waterways healthy,” Oxenrider said.

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“As we track sightings over the next two years, we want to encourage everyone to keep their eyes open, report their sightings and help us protect these important salamanders and their habitats for future generations."

Anglers or anyone else who sees a hellbender or mudpuppy in their local waterway or inadvertently catch one while fishing can report their sighting to the division by completing a short questionnaire, which includes questions about the date and location of the observation. Submitting a photo is encouraged. To learn more about the survey, visit .

Hellbenders and mudpuppies are the only two fully aquatic salamanders native to West Virginia. Neither species is poisonous or venomous, and they eat mainly crayfish, worms, and insects but occasionally eat small minnows or other smaller amphibians. Hellbenders and mudpuppies have not been shown to negatively impact sportfish populations.

Anglers who inadvertently hook a hellbender or mudpuppy should immediately release the animal into the water by cutting the line as close to the hook as possible or extracting the hook, taking care to remove the barb with pliers before extracting. State law prohibits the possession or taking of a hellbender or mudpuppy.

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State biologists will use data collected during the survey to better understand hellbender and mudpuppy distribution and status in West Virginia and to inform future conservation efforts.

“Every observation counts,” said Oxenrider. “You don’t have to be an angler to participate.”

For more information about hellbenders, mudpuppies and other citizen science projects, visit .


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