Pollutants, environmental factors endanger Ozarks waterways
As you venture into the Ozarks waterways this summer, you may not think about all of the animals that call those rivers, lakes and streams home. According to Dr. Alicia Mathis, head of the Missouri State University biology department, we should all be concerned about them – and especially the focus of her endangered species research, the Ozark hellbender – and work to conserve them.
“They are sensitive to environmental pollutants, and we need to realize we use the same water that they do,” said Mathis. “If there’s something in the water that’s causing enough of a problem to drive hellbenders to extinction, maybe it’s something we should be concerned about for our own health.”
The Ozark hellbender is the largest salamander in North America and second largest in the world, and Mathis has spent years researching this species in the field and laboratory.
“We’re primarily interested in the conservation of the species, because we know from previous research they’re in quite a bit of trouble, particularly in Missouri, but also through a large part of their range,” she said. “It has a face only a mother can love, but I think they’re kind of cute.”
In the 1990s, she began a long series of censuses which revealed the Ozark hellbenders’ numbers had decreased by about 75 percent from the 1980s censuses in Ozark waterways. Since then, she has also conducted male reproductive health studies. At this point, she noted, many factors contribute to the species being endangered:
- Ozark hellbenders need very specific water conditions to thrive: clean (not too much sediment) and cool water is best for their oxygen needs.
- Introduced species, like trout, have invaded their territory, and the salamanders haven’t built up defenses to them.
- Agricultural runoff and other pollutants can make the water unlivable.
One of her graduate students is working on a team studying the reproductive patterns of the Ozark hellbender at the St. Louis Zoo. For more information, visit the Ron Goellner Center for Hellbender Conservation.
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