Scientists have known about the remarkable powers of salamander regeneration for more than 200 years, but beginning in the 1980s, researchers noticed a sharp decline in the Ozark Hellbender population. They also found a specific population from the North Fork of Missouri's White River was declining dramatically and losing the ability to regenerate.
"We were finding animals with no legs that were still alive with flesh wounds or bones sticking out of limbs," Nickerson said.
"Looking at the microorganisms on their skin can help us understand why these animals aren't regenerating at the rate we're used to seeing, and may lead to conclusions about population declines," he said.
In November, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service added the Ozark Hellbender to the federal endangered species list. Its species name is Cryptobranchus alleganiensis bishopi.
Stanley Trauth, curator of amphibians and reptiles in the department of biological sciences at Arkansas State University, said public awareness of the species is increasing, and Hellbenders have recently been successfully bred for the first time in captivity at the St. Louis Zoo.
"There has been a dramatic decrease in the population and there are a number of factors that contribute to that," Trauth said. "But these types of studies will help provide more consistent results on the impact of microorganisms and animal health."
"In the last 20 years we have been finding a tremendous number of injuries on these animals and those injuries are not healing," Nickerson said. "Now the population is down to almost nothing and we are very worried about the species and the environmental changes around them."
The Ozark Hellbender's fossil record goes back 161 million years and it represents one of the most ancient lines of amphibian life.
"This is about as far, in phylogeny, as that type of regeneration goes, this is the most ancient group
|Contact: Max Nickerson|
University of Florida