Cathy Jachowski is a Ph.D. candidate in Fisheries and Wildlife Conservation and a fellow in the Interfaces of Global Change interdisciplinary graduate education program at Virginia Tech.

“Growing up in Kentucky, I learned the value of maintaining clean and healthy rivers, lakes and streams for both people and wildlife. As humans, we have all contributed to changes in land use patterns, climate and various types of pollution. These changes can affect the quality of water we depend on and the health and abundance of fish and wildlife using that water. I am interested in understanding if, and how, fish and wildlife can handle the rapid changes that we are causing. If they are having trouble coping, it could be an important early warning that humans are going to have trouble as well.

My current research involves work with hellbenders, which are harmless salamanders that can live for over 30 years and grow to over two feet long. They live their entire lives in rivers across Appalachia, hiding under rocks and eating crayfish. Hellbenders are disappearing from many streams for unclear reasons, which could suggest that other species of fish or wildlife are in danger.

I am using hellbenders to understand how alterations to land can influence animals in a stream. For example, are hellbenders in streams surrounded by agriculture exposed to more or fewer parasites than hellbenders surrounded by forest? And does the type of land surrounding a stream influence the ability of hellbenders to survive and reproduce while infected with parasites?

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Hellbenders spend most of their lives in a small section of stream, so we can implant individuals with a microchip and keep track of them year after year. This lets us know whether individuals are surviving and in good health. One of the most fascinating things we now know about hellbenders is that the fathers protect their eggs and larvae from predators. The dads will stay in a deep rock crevice for several months until the young are big enough to head out into the stream on their own. This is important information because factors that affect the health of dads at any point during that time period can affect how many babies survive each year.

Natural nest cavities are very difficult to find, so we don’t know much about what hellbender dads are doing while they are with their young. An exciting part of my research involves using artificial nest boxes to understand what goes on in a typical nest, as well as what can go wrong. 

*Hellbender research in the Hopkins Lab is the result of a partnership with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, funded through the State Wildlife Grants Program.