I’ve spent over a decade researching large, aquatic salamander species like Hellbenders, Mudpuppies, and Sirens. I also study the human aspects of ecology.

For my PhD, I am researching what makes conservation scientists want to engage with the public about science.

I’m also a leader in the #HERpers movement, encouraging girls to learn about reptiles and amphibians and creating a community for women in herpetology!

Proof!

Also check out my episode on the Ecological Adventures Podcast. It'll be out Thursday!

AMA

Comments: 97 • Responses: 39  • Date: 

hackarchives9 karma

What generated your interest in this field? Is there some kind of event involved in your childhood?

IFAS_WEC_AMAs10 karma

Hi! I definitely always had an interest in slimy and scaly critters as I would catch them in my backyard as a kid, and luckily my parents never discouraged me. I also had an amazing HS biology teacher. However, I didn't actively realize I could be a herpetologist for a job until I failed miserably as a genetics major (too prone to lab accidents) and looked into more options.

IFAS_WEC_AMAs8 karma

Someone ask me about Mudpuppies!

hellbenderheroes6 karma

What's the biggest difference between a mudpuppy and a hellbender? Do you have a personal preference between the two?

IFAS_WEC_AMAs4 karma

They are actually in different salamander families. Mudpuppies keep their external gills their whole life, while Hellbenders lose them after a year or so. Their bodies are also shaped very differently. Mudpuppies have more triangular heads and are shaped like tubes while Hellbenders are flattened and have more round heads. Mudpuppies are super amazing though because they can live in all sorts of habitat (everything from deep in the Great Lakes to shallow mountain streams.) Mudpuppies also have a much larger geographic range than Hellbenders.

johnnypatoon2 karma

What is your favorite 'bar fact' about Muddpuppies?

johnnypatoon2 karma

^ Ditto this question for Sirens. Also what is a Siren?

IFAS_WEC_AMAs3 karma

Sirens are a family of aquatic salamanders. They sort of look like an eel and an axolotl had a baby. They also have lost their back legs and pelvis. Right now there are two large species and two small species.

A cool fact about them: Researchers recently discovered that they are the only salamanders confirmed to purposely eat plant material.

IFAS_WEC_AMAs1 karma

Mudpuppies are in a family of salamanders that all live in North America with the exception of one species, the European Olm. This is one of the coolest salamanders ever frankly. It's cave/underground water dwelling so its all ghostly white, has undeveloped eyes, and is believed to live a long time (50-70 years). Some believe they may be behind dragon myths because people believed them to be baby dragons when they were washed out from the caves.

Waterrat2 karma

Do mudpuppies hibernate?

IFAS_WEC_AMAs2 karma

Mudpuppies don't hibernate. They actually love the cold, and are more active during winter months. There are other salamanders, however, that can go into periods of aestivation to survive harsh conditions like freezing and dried ponds.

hellbenderheroes8 karma

Very specific, very strange question....have you ever been tempted to nibble on their toes?

JonathanHoeflich3 karma

I'm curious about this as well lol!

IFAS_WEC_AMAs6 karma

Is this like a Tide Pods thing? Haha

A lot of the wild ones are missing at least some of the cute toes but they are pretty dang cute in a gobble them up sort of way.

MrFlagg7 karma

is your real name Sally Manders?

IFAS_WEC_AMAs10 karma

I prefer Kirsten Hechtbender, but actually if I ever have another kid Sally Amanda is on the list. So is Andrias (the genus of the Asian giant salamanders).

stupidjuice017 karma

What do you find was the biggest key for your success in school? I'm struggling in History of Vertebrates right now and I know more advanced classes are coming

IFAS_WEC_AMAs9 karma

One thing I can say is that I tend to use a lot of mnemonics to memorize scientific names and/or remember concepts. Is there a specific type of struggle you are having?

stupidjuice012 karma

Its definitely memorizing names and the concepts about them. Labs that I have to memorize 40 animals or so with all their names and characteristics. :(

IFAS_WEC_AMAs8 karma

Try making mnemonics or make up a song! It surprisingly helps. And flashcards (while boring) can be really good for these types of things.

GourmetCoffee6 karma

Do you get as angry as I do when people call salamanders lizards?

IFAS_WEC_AMAs7 karma

Yes.

TheGameReaperX2 karma

They (appearance wise) are kinda wet lizards. I realize there are great differences between the two, but I deal with small children a lot, and its an easy way to start the discussion. They almost always ask "why are they wet?"

IFAS_WEC_AMAs2 karma

I was mostly joking, but kids totally get a pass on everything. :)

I actually spend a lot of time talking to kids about differences in skin and eggs when discussing reptiles and amphibians because the amphibians being related to water can get really confusing when you think about aquatic reptiles and terrestrial amphibians that never go in water. I put plastic wrap with a bit of oil on a stuffed animal to represent salamander skin and use water beads to represent their eggs. Reptiles can be represented with onion bag skin and ping pong ball eggs. It seems to work really well.

nypvtt4 karma

There was an episode of River Monsters where Jeremy Wade surmised that a certain Japanese salamander could grow large enough to eat a small child. Do you believe this? Has there ever been a case of a salamander attempting to eat a human?

IFAS_WEC_AMAs12 karma

The giant salamanders in Asia can reach sizes over 4 feet.

I've never heard of any cases of them eating people, but I imagine a really large one would be able to eat a small baby if its smaller than its mouth. Not sure why that situation would arise though. Haha.

That said there is some super cool mythology about giant salamanders in Japan. Basically the myth I've heard goes that a super large dragon type salamander would eat local villagers. This one guy decided he had enough so he let it swallow him and then he used a sword to cut it from the inside and kill it.

Unfortunately the angry spirit of the salamander stayed around and caused all sorts of issues for the village. In order to make the spirit happy, the villagers started a celebration to honor the salamander spirit.

There is a festival in Japan supposedly based on this myth complete with salamander floats and kimonos. It's the number one thing on my bucket list.

Warlizard4 karma

But you really like lizards better than salamanders, right?

I mean, salamanders are pretty cool and all, but lizards are just awesome! What's your favorite lizard?

IFAS_WEC_AMAs11 karma

This is a funny one because while I do think salamanders are better for many reasons, my favorite animal is actually the Komodo Dragon. I also had lizards as a kid. Once I heard about the amphibian crisis, however, it was salamanders for me.

fishnchips173 karma

Much in the way of personality or intelligence in larger salamanders? My axolotls differ personality wise with one being an Einstein compared to the other.

IFAS_WEC_AMAs5 karma

I haven't come across any research on this, but in my experience there are definitely some salamanders that are more chill than others.

johnnypatoon3 karma

I think we have pretty good hellbender water in these woods. Do you have any pointers on seeing them in their natural habitat? Is their a good time of day to go river snorkeling to see them? Follow up --- What else can we do in our community to help the hellbenders? (Aside from telling everyone not to move the rocks in the river)

IFAS_WEC_AMAs3 karma

They tend to be most active late in the summer or on rainy overcast days. They are nocturnal, so finding them during the day can be a challenge. It's best not to turn rocks to find them though, as it can alter their habitat and could possibly injure or kill them. If the stream is clear, sometimes you can see them out at night too :)

Not moving rocks or taking gravel is a huge thing as you've mentioned. Being sure to disinfect any gear when you move between streams can help limit disease transfer. Not releasing bait or unwanted pets is a huge one for aquatic species in general. If you have land on the water, keeping vegetation/trees along the stream bank is helpful. One other thing that helps amphibians is limiting household pesticide/herbicide use in general.

JonathanHoeflich3 karma

What do you feel is the biggest threat to the survival of hellbenders? Siltation, climate change, agricultural, pollution, habitat loss, and human ignorance are all contributing factors but what do you feel is the worst? I'm also curious about your thoughts on the use of nesting boxes in relation to human curiosity (if people see them will they leave them alone or do they open up an easy way for people to potentially harass the animals?) as well as survival rates of reintroduced animals bred in captivity vs those bred in the wild. Also as much as their numbers have declined do you feel there is hope for their populations to stabilize or even rebound through increased conservation efforts or has to much damage been done?

IFAS_WEC_AMAs5 karma

Habitat loss is number one in my opinion, but it's not necessarily mutually exclusive from the other issues.

Siltation, for example, can embed the rocks and substrate that Hellbenders rely on. I haven't worked in an area where nest boxes were used, but imagine humans could definitely mess with them. On the other hand, humans also mess with regular rocks too, so not sure it would be an additional issue or not.

There is definitely hope for Hellbenders.

There are few areas where the populations are at least stable, particularly in protected areas like government forests and national parks. Some zoos have pretty large numbers of them in captivity at this point. If we can restore and protect enough habitat, I think the future is bright.

KeyofBNatural3 karma

This is from my girlfriend's eight year old daughter:

"What do baby salamanders eat? Because um, we found some eggs in a creek in our back yard. We put them in a jar and they hatched and we don't know what to feed them."

IFAS_WEC_AMAs6 karma

If they are aquatic larvae, you'll need to keep changing their water (using creek water).

When they first hatch, they eat really small invertebrates which you may not even see, but will be in the water.

They also will foul their water very carefully so you'll need it to be fresh so they don't get sick.

I'd also work on getting some brine shrimp eggs as they will eat the small hatchlings but it takes some time for them to hatch. Once they get a bit bigger, they can eat blood worms.

IFAS_WEC_AMAs3 karma

I should note that it can be pretty difficult to raise small salamander larvae and I don't generally recommend taking eggs from the wild, especially if you don't know what species you have. Some species are protected and its illegal to take them. That said I know it's super fun and educational to watch them hatch and grow, so I would suggest trying to find folks with captive axolotl eggs to do this with for anyone else interested. Just remember not to release any sort of pets into the wild.

IAMAminipigAMA3 karma

What do you think about zoos and their efforts towards conservation, specifically amphibian conservation?

IFAS_WEC_AMAs12 karma

Zoos are really playing a HUGE role in amphibian conservation, both in captive rearing/breeding and research. I actually had my first Hellbender research internship through a zoo and have worked with zoo partners on almost all of my research so far. St. Louis Zoo in particular is spearheading Hellbender conservation efforts, and animals are being put back in the wild now thanks to them.

bigshinyponyta3 karma

I am pleasant surprised at the lack of herpes jokes.

Which begets the question: what reactions do you typically get when you tell people irl that you are a herpetologist?

IFAS_WEC_AMAs1 karma

Haha you missed a few that were removed. The other joke I hear a lot is that x thing tastes like chicken.

The reactions are quite mixed. Some people get really interested and ask me a million questions, tell me stories, or want to know what the thing was they saw in their back yard while others freak out and tell me I'm weird. I usually get a bit of a surprised reaction regardless. I also have way more people than I'd like tell me about the snakes they've killed.

PM_ME_MII2 karma

What, if any, are the significant differences in physiology between the giant salamanders and the smaller ones that allows for such a larger size? Do their bodies have to compromise on any typical salamander functions?

IFAS_WEC_AMAs5 karma

Physiology is a bit out of my expertise, but most of the larger species of salamanders live pretty much exclusively in water (although some can and do come out for short bits).

One of the biggest challenges for larger salamanders would probably be not drying out due to high surface area, so aquatic living conditions could definitely help with that. Many larger species also have multiple modes of respiration.

2_bob_rocket2 karma

What is a salamander?

IFAS_WEC_AMAs1 karma

This is surprisingly more difficult to answer than it seems. haha

Salamanders are one of three orders of amphibians. The other two are frogs and caecilians. They have tails at all life stages, typically have four legs of equal size, and share some other skeletal and muscular similarities.

chuggachugga1232 karma

Do you do much work with bd/bsal if so, what if anything do you think can be done to help struggling populations of salamanders and other amphibians that have been effected by these fungi?

IFAS_WEC_AMAs2 karma

I don't work on those personally. I know Hellbenders have had bd since at least the 60s but the impacts of it seem unclear so far. Some that test positive seem fine and others aren't fine. There could be variability with strains and things that folks are just starting to get a grasp on now. Not sure any of the species I work with have been tested for bsal susceptibility yet as this is an emerging area, but so far it has not been found in the US. From my understanding there have been some promising small scale treatment methods in captivity, but translating that into wild populations is not really feasible. There is some work going on with probiotics that has potential so I am crossing my fingers.

sapandsawdust2 karma

What are some of the challenges that women might face in pursuing herpetology? Are they specific to the field, or broadly aligned with some of the other challenges in STEM?

Also, it's so cool that you do this! I love froggos but don't really have a knack for science, so I'll continue to be an enthusiast, haha.

IFAS_WEC_AMAs2 karma

I'd say we share many of the same challenges, although some areas of herpetology have more challenges than others. One of my biggest unexpected hurdles has been trying to safely do field work with a kid. At a societal level, however, we have some work to do as I hear from more girls than I'd like that someone told them they can't like herps or be herpetologists because it is only for boys.

herrvaronfatsuchi2 karma

How long does it take for an axolotl to mutate into a salamander?

IFAS_WEC_AMAs1 karma

Axolotls actually never naturally metamorph into a typical adult salamander form. They basically never grow up and keep juvenile characteristics, like gills, their whole life.

johnnypatoon2 karma

What sort of predators do hellbenders have?

IFAS_WEC_AMAs1 karma

Larger Hellbenders and otters are predators of adult Hellbenders. Humans have historically killed them too. When they hatch, they are only about an inch long so as you can imagine there are many things that eat immature Hellbenders.

DropSama2 karma

Where are Otters in their range? I thought hellbenders were more a southern and central thing, and otters a NE and west coast thing?

IFAS_WEC_AMAs2 karma

River otters have a pretty broad range throughout most of Canada, and Eastern/Southeastern/Northwestern US. The only section you don't find them in the eastern US is around some of the Great Lakes area. Fun fact: Many of the otters that were released during reintroduction efforts to Great Smoky Mountains National Park came from Louisiana.

i-dislike-cats2 karma

Hi! I studied zoology at university in the hopes of getting into a herpetology job but am having no success.

Is there any advice you can give me?

IFAS_WEC_AMAs5 karma

It can be really hard to break through this field at first. Often networking is the key to getting jobs, so I suggest meeting as many folks as you can in the field, and getting whatever research experience you can get. I had to take an unpaid internship when I first came out of university, but since I didn't have much money so I also worked as janitor at the zoo so I could eat. Usually once you've had a few good research experiences and people that will vouch for you, it gets much easier. If you are in the US, there are some programs like Americorp or Student Conservation Association that sometimes provide subsidized housing while you get some research experience.

DropSama2 karma

This has been a great thread. Like reading about another life I could have had had things gone different. I was almost dead set on getting into Zoology, especially herp's(I'm still at least a good keeper of my pet slither), due to a great high school teacher. But, I ended up going for the sure thing and joining the army(had to leave the small town). I say all that to say this. BRAVO! It warms my heart to see someone follow a dream and end up doing something this cool. for every 10 of you there's a 1000 that didn't make it through school, and 10,000 who didn't even try. Keep being awesome. please come back and tell us water dragon science tales again soon!

IFAS_WEC_AMAs1 karma

Thank you for the kind words. I'm always up for nerding out about salamanders!

hellbenderheroes2 karma

Second, slightly more serious question: are they social only within the hellbender community or do they interact with other amphibians?

IFAS_WEC_AMAs5 karma

Most of the time Hellbenders are not super social even with other Hellbenders (except maybe to fight over good rocks). They will also eat anything that will fit in their mouth, including other salamanders, so I imagine most amphibians avoid them. Haha. That said, you sometimes find multiple species together under one rock, especially Mudpuppies and Hellbenders, but I assume they are utilizing different parts of the rock that have barriers between them.

johnnypatoon2 karma

Do Hellbenders ever accidently slip down a waterfall? Can they climb back up if they do?

IFAS_WEC_AMAs4 karma

No one has evidence of this, but Hellbenders are pretty good at dealing with current in normal conditions. There are a few anecdotal observations of Hellbenders crawling on land, so imagine they could manage to get around at least minor barriers to go back upstream if this did occur.

johnnypatoon2 karma

Follow up --- Do they end up living most of their lives in the same pool of a river? Do they hang out with family / grow up with their parents? Or do the eggs and larvae float down the river and grow up on their own?

IFAS_WEC_AMAs9 karma

Your follow up really gets to some of my favorite things about Hellbenders.

Hellbenders are pretty solitary as adults and typically have one or two rocks shelters they will use regularly, sometimes over years. This species mostly crawls on the stream bottom, which helps them avoid getting swept away from the current.

The breeding season typically takes place between late Fall to early Winter. At this point males will start fighting over nest shelters, until one winner, a den master, is declared.

Multiple females will come to the nest and lay their eggs. The male then fertilizes them, and kicks all the other Hellbenders out to protect the eggs from cannabalism.

The den master tends to the eggs by slowly rocking his tail for oxygenation and will carefully pull apart and eat any diseased eggs. Researchers are just starting to understand what happens next, but it appears that males will stay with the larvae potentially all the way until they disperse from the nest.

BEANandCHEE2 karma

I used to have a couple pet tiger salamanders and they would sometimes bite my finger as I was feeding them wax worms. It didn’t hurt as their “teeth” weren’t substantial. Can a hellbender bite hurt you?

IFAS_WEC_AMAs2 karma

Definitely! They have small but sharp teeth and will can roll once they grab on. I got tagged once. It was shallow but bled like crazy. Luckily most Hellbenders have not offered to bite. I've heard that certain populations may be more prone to aggression than others. The longest salamanders in North America, amphiumas, can give a really nasty bite. The amphiumas are eel shaped with teeny vestigial stumps for legs.

hellbenderheroes1 karma

I only recently discovered that hellbenders even exist so I have a lot of questions. Do they sleep? Hibernate?

Do they travel much or mainly stick to one area?

IFAS_WEC_AMAs3 karma

This is Rhett, the WEC social media person. Your question about sleep is so interesting Kirsten is now furiously reading scientific papers about it. :D

IFAS_WEC_AMAs1 karma

So as Rhett mentioned, this was a great question and I've been reading papers about sleep in amphibians.

I've never encountered a sleeping Hellbender before, but researchers suspect that amphibians have regular periods of inactivity which would be somewhat like non-REM sleep with the ability to quickly react to stimuli. Only one salamander has been researched so far though.

In winter, Hellbenders tend to slow down activity but they can still be active.

They usually stay in one area. In the past, researchers did a study where they released Hellbenders in different spots, and most of them returned to where they were taken.

hellbenderheroes2 karma

Fascinating. This makes me wonder, do you feel like you notice "personalities" in hellbenders the way most people do with an animal like a dog?

IFAS_WEC_AMAs1 karma

I don't know what the cause is specifically, but individual Hellbenders definitely differ on their aggressiveness. Some also seem try to figure out how to get out of temporary holding areas, etc, while others just sit there.

IFAS_WEC_AMAs1 karma

Hey all! I've really enjoyed your awesome questions today. I've decided to check in again tomorrow and will respond between work.

redfricker1 karma

What do you know about mouth sores?

IFAS_WEC_AMAs7 karma

Never heard that one before... :|