Effects of Land Use on Hellbenders (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis) at Multiple Levels and Efficacy of Artificial Shelters as a Monitoring Tool
Understanding how species respond to anthropogenic changes and why species respond in the way that they do can help focus conservation planning. Hellbenders (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis) are a freshwater species of increasing conservation concern that are suspected to have declined due to loss of forest cover. However, quantitative evidence of land use effects on hellbenders is lacking. I used a multilevel approach to understanding whether hellbenders respond to land use by examining physiological indices, demographics and patterns of species occurrence as endpoints. My study area included two major river drainages in Virginia which mark a largely understudied portion of the species' range. In Chapter I, I described hellbender distribution and tested the hypothesis that hellbenders would be more likely to occur in heavily forested landscapes. Surprisingly, hellbenders occupied a relatively wide land use gradient (range = 50-90% forest in an upstream catchment) and current land use was an unreliable predictor of occurrence. In Chapter II I examined hellbender abundance and demographics at a subset of study sites stratified across a land use gradient. Abundance of sub-adult/adult hellbenders increased as forest cover increased in collective upstream riparian areas, primarily as the result of increased recruitment of new adults to local populations (rather than increased apparent survival of adults). Populations in lesser forested areas were declining and composed largely of relatively old adults, indicating that land use can lead to changes in hellbender distribution given sufficient time. In Chapter III, I examined three indices of physiological condition (body condition, hematocrit and leukocyte profiles) in hellbenders captured across a land use gradient. I found evidence suggesting low reproductive success may explain reduced recruitment in areas of low forest cover and evidence suggesting hellbender endocrinology during the breeding season may vary with land use. In Chapter IV I examine efficacy of artificial shelters as a monitoring tool and demonstrate their potential as tool to further our understanding of mechanisms underlying demographic responses of hellbenders to land use. I synthesize my findings in Chapter V and conclude that loss of forest cover in riparian areas poses a formidable threat to hellbender population viability in Virginia.