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WVU Student's Eastern Hellbender Research Goes Viral, Featured on Discovery Canada’s Daily Planet

The cryptic eastern hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis) became an internet sensation after junior Wildlife & Fisheries Resources major, Ty Shannon, tweeted photos of himself with a hellbender caught during a November 11 student research trip on the Greenbrier River.

Junior Wildlife & Fisheries Resources major, Ty Shannon, tweeted photos of himself with a hellbender caught during a November 11 student research trip on the Greenbrier River.

The photos were re-tweeted by a comedy show that likened the hellbender to a Demogorgon from the Netflix original series Stranger Things. Once that retweet happened, it went viral, receiving over 61,000 likes and 22,000 retweets. The tweet was also picked up by Discovery Canada’s “Daily Planet,” which featured the students’ hellbender research in their November 14 episode.

“Hellbenders are quintessential habitants of Appalachian rivers because they require clean, well-oxygenated habitats. However, their populations are on the decline due to habitat loss and degradation associated with growing human development,” said Eric Merriam, a postdoctoral fellow at West Virginia University (WVU). “As a result, hellbenders are a high conservation priority. Unfortunately, they are also a cryptic species and are very difficult to find. As a result, their distribution and status are not fully known throughout much of their range.”

Researchers and students at West Virginia University are using environmental DNA to better characterize hellbender distribution within the Greenbrier River as part of the Appalachian Freshwater Initiative, which is funding by the National Science Foundation under award number OIA-1458952.

“We know hellbenders occur in the East and West Forks of the Greenbrier River; however, we do not know how for downstream they occur. That’s what we’re trying to determine,” said Merriam. “Environmental DNA or eDNA is free-floating DNA that is shed by animals as they move through the water. Researchers take a water sample, filter and extract DNA from the water, and use a DNA fingerprinting technique to determine hellbender distributions without actually having to catch them. The tweeted photos show WVU undergraduate students, led by senior Wildlife & Fisheries student James Hartley, conducting this important research.”

The WVU AFI’s hellbender eDNA sampling and research effort is in coordination with work being conducted by Dr. Joe Greathouse at West Liberty University and Dr. Stephen Spear, director of The Wilds, as well as annual stream sampling efforts by the WV Division of Environmental Protection’s Watershed Assessment branch.

“Our sampling is just one piece of a larger research effort to better characterize the hellbender’s regional distribution,” said Merriam.

WVU senior James Hartley measures an Eastern Hellbender during a student research trip. WVU senior James Hartley lifts a rock in search of hellbenders while junior Ty Shannon waits for the silt to clear and has a net ready in anticipation of capturing a hellbender. A hellbender is being weighed during an October 1 student research trip on the Greenbrier River (Photo by Jillian Clemente).

The research highlighted in this story is based upon work that is supported by the National Science Foundation under Award Number 1458952.