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About This Project

The Eastern Hellbender is a large (up to 29 inches!) salamander that has declined throughout its range. Numerous threats face the species including a lack of nesting habitat in some streams and rivers, often due to siltation. Effective conservation is also hampered by a poor understanding of distribution in Pennsylvania. This project will create artificial refugia (hiding spots) called nesting boxes that can be used to both detect Hellbenders in the wild and offer nesting habitat.

What is the context of this research?

This project will investigate whether nest boxes for the Eastern Hellbender will be utilized for nesting and as a search method. Two sets of sites will be selected: those with known Hellbender colonies for reference and control, and those sites that historically had Hellbender observations. Nesting boxes have been utilized by workers in several states (Briggler and Atkinson 2012, Messerman 2014 Standard survey technique includes the use of peavey bars to wrench heavy rocks from the bottom of streams to look for Hellbenders, likely harming habitats. We are hopeful non-invasive nesting boxes can be used as an alternative sampling method. Nesting boxes have not been previously used in Pennsylvania, making this a first for the state.

What is the significance of this project?

The project is located in Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, a state that has what may be the largest Eastern Hellbender range in the Northeastern United States. Unfortunately, studies of historical (records over 30 years old) stream and river drainages are almost non-existent. This significantly impacts conservation decision-making in a negative way. Standard survey techniques are invasive, often include the wrenching of suitable rocks (specifically oriented large, flat rocks on the stream floor), and may damage the very habitat that researchers are trying to protect. Nesting boxes may allow for non-invasive surveying for the Hellbender in Pennsylvania. Additionally, the inclusion of volunteers from the local sampling areas foster a sense of community and interest in this rare salamander.

What are the goals of the project?

The main goals of this project are to understand the distribution of Pennsylvania Eastern Hellbenders, and to test the efficacy of non-invasive surveying. We will create 100 nesting boxes for the spring of 2017. A statistically significant number of sites will be selected, both reference sites and historical sites. Reference sites have been previously sampled and have accompanying abundance data. Boxes will be set after spring rains and checked bi-monthly (via a small door on the box top) from June through November for two years. Each captured Hellbender will be humanely marked, measured, photographed, and released at the spot of capture. This project will also increase opportunities for local stakeholders (citizen-scientists) to engage in science and conservation.


The nesting box budget item allows for the creation of a nesting box mold, the fabrication of the boxes out concrete, and non-toxic finishing. These costs are estimated at $30 per box. Travel (mileage at annual IRS mileage rate) will allow staff to travel with volunteers to sampling sites, some of which are relatively remote and situated in rural landscapes. Staff time (hourly rates, plus employee fringe – no overhead charges) will allow our Eastern Hellbender team to select study sites, install nest boxes, analyze data, and lead volunteer sampling for a citizen science project.

  • Nesting Boxes (materials: molds, concrete, non-toxic finish) $3000
  • Travel (IRS mileage rate) $1500
  • Staff Time $4000


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