Behavior and conservation: hellbender reproductive behavioral responses to poor water quality and the value of private lands research for conservation outreach

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Virginia Tech


The behavior of humans and animals is an important component of conservation. The way people behave can cause environmental harm, but it also can be a solution to conservation challenges. Similarly, wildlife can respond to changing environments in ways that are detrimental to their survival, but they can also in some cases adapt or even thrive in human-impacted environments. In this dissertation, I discuss the ways in which human and hellbender behaviors relate to conservation.
First, using survey and interview data, I explore the reasons why private landowners allow access to their property for research. I find that landowners are more likely to allow research on their property if they have previously allowed research, if they are interested in learning about the research taking place, if they have larger properties, and if they had positive attitudes towards conservation. Conversely, they are less likely to allow access to their property if they are concerned that doing so might restrict free use of their property. Other possible predictors that I investigate, such as landowner demographics, landowner trust in science, and landowner attitudes towards hellbenders are not significant predictors of allowing research.
I next explore the effects of engaging landowners in research either via citizen science or "traditional" private lands research where scientists work on the landowner's property, but the landowner is not involved in data collection. I assess the effects of these types of engagement on landowner conservation knowledge, attitudes, awareness, and behavioral intentions and compare the effects across these two treatment groups and a control. I find similar changes in both the traditional and citizen science treatment groups, with involvement in the research leading to greater conservation knowledge, increased awareness of conservation concerns, more positive attitudes towards conservation, and/or more conservation behavioral intentions. However, I observe limited behavior change in any treatment group, and I identify a lack of efficacy and a hesitancy to accept responsibility for water quality degradation as possible barriers to behavior change.
My investigations of animal behavior utilize custom-built underwater infrared camera technology to study hellbender reproductive behavior. I first add to current understanding of hellbender breeding behavior by describing the basic hellbender mating sequence, identifying the presence of potential alternative mating tactics, and describing two novel behaviors, including possible signal production via wave-based communication and a unique egg laying behavior by female hellbenders. I then measure the extent to which hellbender males (which provide the parental care) may help protect their offspring from low oxygen and high siltation, and I assess the possibility of trade-offs between parental care behaviors that benefit the eggs and self-maintenance behaviors that benefit the parent. I find that guarding male hellbenders increase both their parental care behaviors and their self-maintenance behaviors in response to low dissolved oxygen, but that they also show evidence of a trade-off between the two, with males ceasing parental care in favor of self-maintenance at sufficiently low levels of dissolved oxygen. Males show no parental response to high levels of silt. My findings add to our understanding of human and animal behavior and highlight the importance of behavioral flexibility to conservation. I find that hellbenders can to some extent modify their behaviors to compensate for the impacts of poor stream management on their own and their offspring's health, and I find that engaging landowners in research can encourage changes in awareness, attitudes, and behavioral intentions regarding conservation.



Hellbender, Parental care, Breeding, Reproduction, Private lands research, Landowners, Conservation behavior, Attitudes