It’s a Hellbender! Answer to Freak of the Week #16

A Hellbender Salamander

A Hellbender Salamander

What has small eyes, breathes by gas exchange through capillaries found on its skin folds, and has the nicknames “snot otter”, “devil dog”, and “walking catfish”? Well, if you said “Dave’s third grade teacher” you’d be right! But I was looking for “Hellbender” which is the best accepted common name for this large salamander, with the equally large scientific name Cryptobranchus alleganiensis.

This is not only the largest amphibian in Ohio but is one of the largest in the world! The top honor goes to the Chinese giant salamander, which is the largest amphibian and the largest salamander in the world. It can get to over 5 feet long and weigh up to 80 pounds! Not surprisingly it is in the same family as the Hellbender, Cryptobranchidae – which means “hidden gill”. Our east-central United States Hellbender, still the third largest salamander in the world, ranges from about 15 – 24 inches long and from 3 – 5 pounds. That’s big for a salamander!

Not only are they big, but they are significant because of their stature as the most primitive amphibian in the state. The giant salamander family, Cryptobranchidae, dates all the way back to the Middle Jurassic, where early species are found in Asia. The surviving members of this family have changed so little that scientists say we can regard them “as living fossils whose structures have remained little changed for over 160 million years”!

Note the row of small teeth in this close-up shot.

Note the row of small teeth in this close-up shot.

So they are the largest and most primitive amphibian in Ohio, and that alone should get them into the Freaky Hall of Fame. But this species takes it one step further by their unusual system of respiration. The Hellbender absorbs oxygen from the water through capillaries found along the folds of skin down the sides of the animal! They’re skin has been described as a “veritable gill” and accounts for most of the oxygen they receive. Thus they prefer faster moving water to keep a steady supply of oxygen but can still survive in slower moving waters. When in low oxygenated water, they will undulate their bodies back and forth to increase the flow of water over their skin.

Unfortunately, populations of the Hellbender have shown significant declines in recent years. In Ohio, the Hellbender is listed as an Endangered Species by the Ohio Division of Wildlife. Another subspecies of the Hellbender, the Ozark Hellbender, is found in Missouri and Arkansas and is listed as an Endangered Species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The decline of Hellbender populations is due to a variety of causes, such as excessive siltation of rivers and streams from agricultural fields, livestock pastures, and logging areas; dams and blocking of their migration routes; pollution; disease; overharvesting; and large withdrawals of water from streams for industrial purposes.

This blog post is a sneak peak our new exhibit opening this summer “Going, Going, GONE? Endangered and Extinct Species”. We will display this freeze-dried Hellbender in the exhibit along with many other specimens of endangered and extinct species from our collections. Stop by the Ohio Historical Center after July 2nd to see this new exhibit!

Amphibians of Ohio book

Amphibians of Ohio book

For a thorough and readable overview of everything about Hellbenders in Ohio, see the chapter “Eastern Hellbender” by Gregory J. Lipps, Jr. in the book “Amphibians of Ohio”. We featured this book in a blog post last December: http://apps.ohiohistory.org/naturalhistory/new-book-just-out-amphibians-of-ohio/

Ever seen one of these!? Freak of the Week #16

Freak of the Week #16

Freak of the Week #16

Note the row of small teeth in this close-up shot.

Note the row of small teeth in this close-up shot.

This creature surely embodies the term ‘Freak’ but only in the awesome and respectful sense that we use it in this blog. So what is this creature!? This is a freeze-dried specimen from the Natural History collections, and it is from Ohio. It’s big; the total length is about 20 inches. Put your answer in the Reply box below.

Perfect timing at Fort Hill

Bob's photo of the Snow Trillium. See link below for more photos of this species.

Bob’s photo of the Snow Trillium. See link below for more photos of this species.

Recently Andrew Gibson and several friends visited Fort Hill State Memorial in Highland County — timing their trip perfectly to stumble upon one of winter’s last hurrahs. Snow and ice created a winter fairy wonderland, which the images in his blog show very beautifully. After the ice and snow melted as the day progressed, the dropped down into the Gorge and saw one of Ohio’s earliest wildflowers — Snow Trillium (also known as Dwarf Trillium), with some snow still partially covering them.

Andrew’s blog is great — and one you really need to see about this visit to Fort Hill. We have linked to his blogs a couple of times previously. Here is the site
http://floraofohio.blogspot.com/2014/04/surprise-snow-at-fort-hill-state.html

As you read his blog, you might be tempted to say something like: “Wow, what a neat natural area! I understand it is one of Ohio’s 25 National Natural Landmarks, but it should also be dedicated as a State Nature Preserve, don’t you think?” Well, if everything falls together, perhaps in July, Fort Hill is planned to be dedicated as the newest of our Dedicated State Nature Preserves. It is certainly worthy of the honor and the added legal protection for this magnificent, semi-wilderness area (in an “eastern wilderness” sense). If you’ve not hiked there recently, you better plan a trip soon. Wildflowers are exploding right now along the Gorge Trail and throughout the preserve.

Bob Glotzhober, Curator Emeritus, Natural History

They’re crinoid columnals! Answer to Freak of the Week #15

Crinoid columnals

Crinoid columnals

Several readers correctly pointed out that these could be used as beads! These are discs from the stem of a crinoid. You might remember that we featured the odd-looking “holdfast” that some species of crinoids used as a way to anchor to the sea floor, in a Freak of the Week from last November. To refresh your memory, and to learn more about crinoids, go to that post at: http://apps.ohiohistory.org/naturalhistory/its-a-crinoid-answer-to-the-freak-of-the-week-6/

Crinoid stem pieces (top) and a reconstructed stem (below).

Crinoid stem pieces (top) and a reconstructed stem (below).

The stem of a crinoid is made up of many individual columnals, or discs, which are linked together by ligaments. After the animal dies they usually become disarticulated and are preserved as short stems or individual pieces. These were brought to us from Bill Pickard of OHS Archaeology and were screened from a large amount of soil at a historic site in western Ohio. The archaeologists said these weren’t associated with other artifacts at the site and are probably just naturally occurring in the soil. Crinoids are relatively common in the exposed bedrock of western Ohio, and stem fragments often weather out and are found in gravel or soil.

And they certainly have been used as beads! This is true in the midwestern of the United States, where they are fairly common, and in other parts of the world. In medieval Northumberland, England the discs would erode from sea cliffs and end up on the beaches of the small island of Lindisfarne, where St. Cuthbert was a monk. They were strung together as necklaces or rosaries and became known as St. Cuthbert’s Beads, a term that is still used today. In other parts of England the round columnals were called “fairy money”.

 Keep your eye out for these ancient fossils on your next outing! In fact, a well known site for collecting invertebrate fossils is right here in Ohio! Hueston Woods State Park, just north of Oxford attracts people from all over the world because of the large number and quality of the fossils that can be found.

They are not beads! Freak of the Week #15

What are these!?

What are these!?

In honor of the 100th posting on the Natural History blog, let’s look at some very small objects – small enough that you probably could fit 100 of them on the face of a quarter! So what are these? (The small objects, not the dime!) They were recovered from an archaeological site in western Ohio, however they are natural objects and were probably just in the soil at the site but not related to the human occupation. They may appear at first like beads but they are not.

Side view of the largest of the objects.

Side view of the largest of the objects.

Notice the interesting shapes of the center holes too. This photo shows the star pattern in the largest of the objects. Also, if you look closely at the small disc in the center of the photo above, you will see a similar star shape. Put your best answer in the Reply box below.

It’s “petrified lightning”! Answer to Freak of the Week #14

Fulgurites

Fulgurites

Congrats to Bob, Dale, and Sarah who all knew that this is fulgurite, also known by some as “petrified lightning”! Fulgurites occur when lightning strikes sand or soil, and instantly fuses the substrate into glassy tubes. The lightning has to be very hot too, at least 1800 degrees C (3270 degrees F). That’s hot! In this case, the lightning hit sand on a beach or desert and formed these tubes in the shape of the electrical current. The outside of these tubes has a rough sandy appearance and is made up of grains of sand fused by the heat. The interior of the tubes is smooth and glassy and sometimes is lined with small bubbles. Fulgurites can vary in size but generally can be as long as about 15 feet. But Charles Darwin recorded one in Cumberland, UK as long as 30 feet! Fulgurites can also form when high voltage cables fall and land in a sandy surface.

FulguriteNotice how the bottom half of the fulgurite in the lower right of our picture (above) resembles the fulgurite in the photo from Wikipedia (left)!

They can be found around the world and have been recorded on beaches, in deserts, and sand dunes. A different type of fulgurite can form when lightning strikes solid rock, such as on top of a mountain, where it can leave a beautiful glazed pattern or crust on the rock. I once saw a lightning bolt strike right in front of me when hiking near the barren summit of Mt. Whitney in California (good thing that I’m a slow hiker!). Fulgurites of various sizes have been reported as relatively common on or near rocky mountaintops in the western United States. From now on, these fulgurites are as close as I want to get to lightning!

What is this!? – Freak of the Week #14

FoW#14 007Well, here’s a freaky one for you! It was a hit on some recent behind the scenes tours so I thought it would be a fun Freak of the Week. This specimen has no data with it and is probably not from Ohio, but it could be. Note from the ruler in the photo that the largest one is about 10 inches long. The outside has a sandy, grainy texture and the structure is basically a hollow tube. Any ideas!? Put your best guess in the Reply box below and I’ll give the correct answer in a few days. If there are no correct guesses soon, I can give a clue or two if needed!

Major Prehistoric Ohio Mound Group in Danger, and YOU Can Help!

Junction Earthworks visible in this magnetic survey. Photo by Dr. Jarrod Burks and Heartland Earthworks Conservancy.

Junction Earthworks visible in this magnetic survey. Photo by Dr. Jarrod Burks and Heartland Earthworks Conservancy.

We’re busy these days working on a new exhibit about extinct and endangered species. In doing this research and planning we’re thinking a lot about rare animals and plants, and the loss of these unique and irreplaceable species. But it’s not just living things that are at risk of being lost forever; it can also be our prehistoric heritage. Our colleagues in Archaeology are going down to the wire to help protect an amazing site in Ross County from development. Here’s an excerpt from today’s Archaeology Blog:

“One of Ohio’s last major unprotected mound groups is threatened with destruction: the Junction Group in Ross County. The Junction Group is a collection of nine small-to-medium-sized earthen enclosures built in various geometric shapes by American Indians now known as the Hopewell Culture about 2,000 years ago. This mound group includes Ohio’s only known quatrefoil – a very rare if not unique four-leaf clover shaped enclosure. The Arc of Appalachia (AoA) and Heartland Earthworks Conservancy (HEC) have partnered and are leading the charge to save the Junction Group but they need your help.”

“On Tuesday, March 18, the Junction Group, located at the southwest edge of Chillicothe – on the Stark family farm, will go to auction and is in danger of being destroyed by future development. $500,000 needs to be raised by the community in order for the AoA and HEC to receive the matching gifts necessary to purchase, preserve, and protect the Junction.”

Do we really want this significant mound group to be lost to yet another development!? This site is on the edge of Chilicothe and is imminently threatened with purchase and development. And when I say this is going to down to the wire, I’m not exaggerating. Note that the auction for this property is Tuesday, just four days away! They have made major progress in raising the needed funds in the only 18 day campaign, but as we get to the last few days more pledges are needed to reach the goal and save the mound group!

Follow this link to the Archaeology Blog and learn how you can help TODAY! http://apps.ohiohistory.org/ohioarchaeology/major-prehistoric-ohio-mound-group-in-danger-you-can-help/

Might Spring Suddenly Explode?

A post from Bob Glotzhober, Emeritus Curator of Natural History:

TrilliumSnow5152wThe Minnesota author and naturalist/philosopher, Sigurd Olsen, wrote (paraphrased here as close as I can remember) “one can only truly appreciate spring after one has experienced a northern Minnesota winter.” Ohio (and much of the US) has come close to that this winter — so perhaps we’ll really, really appreciate spring this year. But like Minnesota springs tend to “explode” – with a flash flood of wildflowers irrupting like miniature volcanoes once the snow and cold finally leave! Might Ohio’s spring be less drawn out than usual, and explode upon us this spring too?

On Tuesday (3/11), Bill Schultz and I hiked the Gorge at Fort Hill State Memorial (Highland Co., OH). What a beautiful day! Temps at least 65 in the afternoon — and sweatshirts off and my sleeves rolled up. We saw four Bluebirds in the woods along the Bench — lots of other neat things. Wood Frogs were quacking; Turkey Vultures soaring, Carolina Wrens bolding singing (really echoing loud in the gorge), and perhaps a dozen different Phoebes were buzzing their “Fee-buzz” songs.

However, our goal was to see the Snow Trillium — which can typically be seen here in March. After 34 years of hiking the trails at Fort Hill, I know of at least three reliable spots to find Snow Trilliums. These are on top of promontories, with cliffs overlooking the waters of Baker Fork. Here the soils are thin on top of Peebles Dolomite, producing the alkaline/limestone soils that Snow Trilliums love. None were seen! The cold, cold, winter is continuing its effect on the advent of spring. Some of the early spring birds are back. But no Snow Trillium.

Here is a possible result. Once the Snow Trilliums do bloom (another week or more?) they might be quickly followed by Hepatica, then a wealth of other blooms pushing up in a compacted, rushed explosion of blooms. Will it be an explosive spring blooming season, or will the cool weather continue and things just all be pushed back and delayed? Only time will tell, but I’m betting on an explosive spring. If spring explodes this year, you better be ready to get out and enjoy those wildflowers when you can!

“It’s a WHAT!?” It’s an epiphysis! Answer to Freak of the Week #13

Epiphysis of a bear vertebra.

Epiphysis of a bear vertebra.

Several of you had a good idea of what this was, and Juli knew it exactly! This creepy Valentine’s gift is the epiphysis, or growth cap, of a vertebra. This particular one is from a black bear but I’ve seen this same shape in some deer, elk, and cattle vertebrae. So what is an epiphysis!? Many of the bones in the body, such as long bones, vertebrae, ribs, and some bones of the feet and hands have separate ends of the bones – distinct and unattached growth centers from the main shaft of the bone called epiphyses. As the animal ages and the bones increase in length, the bony epiphyses move outward and allow this growth in length to occur. Once maturity is reached and the bone stops growing in length, the epiphyses finally fuse to the main body of the bone.

Bear vertebra with epiphysis in place.

Bear vertebra with epiphysis in place.

This pattern of growth is really useful in studying bones because you can tell the relative age of the animal by the fusion of the epiphyses to the bones. If the epiphyses are completely separate from the bone, then the animal is very young or a sub-adult. Once the epiphyses start to fuse then the animal has reached skeletal maturity. Full adulthood and older age are when the epiphyses fully fuse to the rest of the bone and the line where they attach (epiphyseal line) becomes completely obliterated.

Of course the fusion of epiphyses only provides a relative age of the individual and is more of an indication of skeletal maturity than chronological age. And to make it more confusing, epiphyses on different bones fuse at different ages in one individual! But it does give you a pretty good idea of the approximate age of the animal. In the case of this bear, the epiphysis is unattached from the body of the vertebra (top photo) but I put it in place on the bottom photo so you can see where it fits. Sure enough, when I check the records, this bear was listed as a “young male” who was hit by a car. Skeletally, we would call it a sub-adult since it reached adult size but the skeleton wasn’t completely mature.

By the way, there are different types of vertebrae in the body, and each type has different characteristics. This particular vertebra is a lumbar vertebra, or vertebra of the lower back. The heart-shaped epiphyses were only found on some of the lumbar vertebra of this bear.