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Ian Snyder: My Experience looking for the Neuse River Waterdog

Have you ever in your lifetime been able to go to a pristine stream in central and eastern North Carolina, and been able to wade in the water and see a relatively large aquatic apex predator? If that is true then you are among the fortunate few. Throughout two of North Carolina’s major river basins, a lesser known species of salamander is in decline. A gentle giant among salamanders is being pushed further and further from its historic habitat by development of urban areas and deterioration of streams that followed. Over the summer I spent my days looking for this specIes and had the privilege to work under Eric Teitsworth, a PhD student in the Forestry and Environmental Resources department here at NC State, who’s PhD project is an extensive survey of the Neuse River Waterdog (Necturus Lewisi). This project follows up on a survey done by the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in the 1980’s that searched the Tar and Neuse river basins looking for this species. At that time the water dog was found as far north as the Eno River State Park and as far south as Greenville, NC. The species is endemic to these two river basins, which means they can only be found there. They can still be found in these areas, but they are becoming increasingly scarce. This project aims to understand where the Neuse River Waterdog currently still can be found and why they are declining. A big win for the conservation effort came late this summer when the United States Fish and Wildlife Service officially listed this species as threatened, meaning it will have additional protections and be subject to consideration in future development wherever it resides.

I started working with Eric at a site in Johnston County in May where he is experimenting with a one site extensive survey for the summer. This site, on one of the many Little Rivers in North Carolina, is a bastion of the Neuse River Waterdog close to highly developing wake county. As much of the broader surveying is done in the winter, when the waterdog is more active, this survey was looking more at understanding one population during its less active season. I enjoyed surveying this site quite a bit. This experience opened my eyes to field work. There were definitely aspects that I did not enjoy. First and foremost being the bugs. This site in the summer was absolutely infested with mosquitos and horseflies. I have never appreciated bug spray and correct PPE more than I did a bug net over my face at this site. The only other aspect I would say that I disliked was the weather. If you have ever spent a summer in the south, you know It gets very hot and very humid. This is even more noticeable when you dress up to avoid bug bites. These negatives, however, were far outweighed by the positives that I experienced. I got to experience what it was like to set, check, and maintain traps. I learned so much about the local flora and fauna from Eric that I was ignorant of beforehand. I learned how to perform habitat surveys at sites all over the piedmont and coastal plains of North Carolina.

This experience has already helped guide me in my career as I am now interning with the City of Raleigh’s Stormwater Management department, where my job description is almost entirely field work.

Waterdogs weren’t the only wildlife we were excited to see. This eastern racer was absolutely beautiful and a sight to see speeding through the brush.

The best thing about this experience was the day in June when I got to the site in Johnston County at around noon. We were planning on snorkeling the river that day looking for waterdogs. When I got there, Eric was calling me. He told me that they had just caught an individual, and that I should hurry down. I quickly jumped out of my car and ran down to the river where everyone was buzzing about the catch.

An adult waterdog can fit in your hand.

They are kind of slippery and hard to hold on to, and they breathe primarily through gills, so handling is kept to a minimum to avoid stress. But I could not pass up the opportunity to take a picture with this cute little creature. Just look at this elegant creature, adapted so acutely to its environment that it can be considered a regulator of small insects and other organisms. But it can’t adapt quickly enough to how we are degrading its habitat. Our continued development threatens to eradicate this species or at least most of its viable habitats to the point where most people won’t be able to experience what I did when i stumbled upon this little guy.

Eric holding a juvenile waterdog measuring just a few centimeters.

But this right here is what made the discomfort of heat and bugs worth it. Seeing the Neuse River Waterdog in the wild, probably where there had been waterdogs centuries or millennia before humans called this area home, and looking for ways to make its future there as protected as possible. I loved this aspect of the job. Later that day we found two more nests with adults protecting newly hatched juveniles and the empty egg sacks they left behind.

I’ve gained a greater respect for the time and effort that goes into conservation. Going to hundreds of sites in unpredictable weather, year after year, in order to make sure a species can continue its journey along the evolutionary train is a noble effort. I have become more aware of the precariousness my local waterways are in and my personal impact on them. I will take this knowledge with me for the rest of my life and I will continue to be and advocate for conservation of natural places. I hope my experience motivates you readers to look outside for the little creatures who may be just below the surface or beneath a rock and might be struggling to keep up with our disturbances. Hopefully more little guys will be advocated for in the future.

This project will continue as Eric progresses his search for more individual waterdogs and continues to learn about the species and why they are in decline. He and his team will continue to survey intensively from December to March each year until he completes his research and hopefully they will stay on his and others radars in the years to come.