Vanishing Giants

Dr. Brad Miller
Dr. Brad Miller

 

Dr. Brian Miller investigates the disappearance of one of the region’s strangest looking animals

Devil Dog. Ground Puppy. Snot Otter. Tweeg. Hellbender. These are just a few of the nicknames associated with Cryptobranchus alleganiensis alleganiensis (the Eastern Hellbender) and Cryptobranchus alleganiensis bishopi (the Ozark Hellbender), two subspecies of North American giant salamander, one of the largest amphibians in the world and the specialty of Dr. Brian Miller, professor of biology.

After receiving his master’s in biology from the University of Missouri and
a Ph.D. in zoology from Washington State University in 1989, Miller came to MTSU to work specifically with hellbenders. “The habitat looked promising for hellbenders,” he says as he recounts how he had no trouble finding the crea- tures in 1991 in the Duck, Little Duck, Collins, Buffalo, and Calfkiller Rivers. Now, after researching almost every foot of water from the Duck River to the Normandy Reservoir, Miller hasn’t been able to find the creatures.

“Almost all of the individual hellbenders we collected, marked, and released were older, larger, and sexually mature,” Miller says. “We think that in areas where we cannot find young individuals, it is because they aren’t reproducing well.” The die-off has happened quickly, and alterations in the water quality and stream habitat may account for the changing population.

“Pollution, agricultural run-off, or disease may all account for the decreasing populations,” Miller says, “and we’re just trying to get a better feel about what might be happening.”

According to Miller, hellbenders used to be easy to find, and in the past, people harvested the creatures for pets or for science class dissections. “I had snakes, lizards, and salamanders as pets,” Miller admits. “But it’s a different time now. Since I began my work at MTSU, my views on owning wildlife as pets have changed.”

He says if a previously easy- to-find group of animals is disappearing, it should be a cautionary tale. “These are the largest salamanders we have that live in the clear, clean water of streams,” Miller says. “If they’re dying out, there is some kind of environmental problem that we need to investigate.”

“Just as we try to protect our cultural heritage—Stones River Battlefield, Oaklands Mansion—I think it is also important to preserve our natural heritage. Future generations deserve the opportunity to visit local streams and see a diversity of wildlife and not just those species tolerant of more polluted or disturbed waters.”

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