Decked in a wetsuit, Emilly leaps into action to grab a slippery “slime noodle,” aka Eastern Hellbender. Found in clear, fast-flowing creeks in southern Appalachia, Emilly and a team of researchers at Tennessee State University are working to protect this threatened species.
The Hellbender salamander is endemic to the eastern and central United States and is the largest salamander found in North America reaching up to an average of 12-15 inches.
Fondly referred to with name as creative as “snot otters” and “lasagna lizard,” this species’ ancestors have inhabited rivers for over 65 million years. Hellbenders used to be abundant and widespread; however, destruction of habitat and water pollution have caused their numbers to decline.
Without intervention, this species could be facing extinction. Emilly is a graduate student at TSU studying within the Wildlife Ecology Laboratory. She had gained a passion for wildlife at an early age with a niche for amphibians which has guided her into pursuing a career in amphibian research.
Upon graduating from SUNY ESF in 2016, she has worked on many projects throughout the country before finding her way to TSU to study Eastern Hellbender salamanders. Below, we talked with Emilly about her work.
1. In two sentences, describe your research.
I am studying the prevalence of the amphibian chytrid fungus, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, in wild Eastern Hellbender populations in southeast Tennessee. I am also studying the effects of translocation on chytrid and the bacterial cutaneous microbiome of Eastern Hellbenders.
2. Why do you think your work is important, especially to conservation?
My work is important to conservation because the overarching goal of this study is to augment declining populations of a state endangered amphibian, the Eastern Hellbender, by conducting a translocation of this species to streams where they have been extirpated from.
Also, the amphibian chytrid fungus has caused the decline and extinction of hundreds of species. The Eastern Hellbender is a species of conservation concern, and this fungus has been confirmed throughout their range.
The skin microbiome of amphibians contains beneficial bacteria that can inhibit chytrid infection. This is a huge step in understanding how other amphibian species might be resistant to the harmful fungus.
However, translocation may induce stress that could cause an increase in disease prevalence and also a change in skin bacterial communities. Monitoring disease and pathogen prevalence along with the microbiome should be an essential step in any translocation to account for changes that may occur.
3. What is the best place you’ve traveled to, either for work or vacation? Why did you enjoy it?
I’ve had the pleasure of working in a lot of different places but I think the best place I’ve traveled for work is Yosemite National Park.
I was an intern there for a summer working on non-native fish removals to restore aquatic habitat for the endangered yellow-legged frog.
I got to live in the park for a summer along with some really great co-workers and just had the best experience as a young biologist. It gave me really great field experience in one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.
The best place I’ve traveled for vacation is Ireland! I went last year and it was just so green and beautiful and historic it took my breath away!
4. What’s the most unique animal you’ve seen in the field?
I don’t know if it counts because it’s my study animal but I think for sure hellbenders! They are so rare to see in the wild and I feel very lucky to be able to see them as much as I do. I also saw a bobcat while working in Yosemite and that was awesome.
5. What’s a funny field story you want to share?
I can never think of a good answer for this but here’s my best one and it involves hellbenders and hotdogs.
Hellbenders will regurgitate their food if they feel stressed. After we had inserted a transmitter into a large female, she was placed in a recovery tub until we were ready to release her.
I was holding the tub in the stream and looked down and saw half of a hot dog in there next to the hellbender. I was literally so confused how a hotdog got into this tub, but then realized the hellbender must’ve spit it up!
Someone probably used it as fish bait in the stream and this hellbender thought it would make a tasty snack. #delicious
6. If you could be any animal, what would you be? Why?
Hmmm this is a tough one. Foxes are some of my favorite animals so maybe a fox? BUT also a mountain goat maybe? They get to live on beautiful mountain faces…but also have to worry about large predators so I’m torn.
7. If you could give one piece of advice to a student wishing to become a conservation biologist or wildlife researcher, what would it be?,.
Be persistent and don’t give up, remember why you chose this as a career (hopefully because you love it!)
Finding jobs in this field is extremely difficult and it can be discouraging to get back dozens of rejections but keep trying!
Don’t limit yourself to a certain study species, experience is experience so take any opportunities that come your way.
Hard work and staying positive will get you where you need to be.
8. What do you think is the most pressing issue facing biodiversity?
What is one thing that gives you hope or optimism?
In my opinion, habitat destruction is the most pressing issue with regard to biodiversity loss.
Forest clearing directly destroys habitat for species, and it takes years to restore these areas.
Species are still being discovered every day and if we destroy these biodiversity hotspots we are likely to drive many to extinction.
I get hope from seeing other researchers in my field and how passionate they are about conservation work.
I hope that the love we biologists have for nature and wildlife and our desire to protect it inspires others to do the same.
Check out this #MissionWild video through Great Big Story that highlights this work:
To see more of Emilly’s research adventures, learn more about Hellbenders and find ways you can help protect this species, visit the TSU Wildlife Ecology lab here and follow her on social media @em_noles on Instagram.
Thank you for sharing your work with us Emilly!