Lessons from the Past: A Historical Approach to Conservation of the Eastern Hellbender Salamander (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis)
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Uncertainty is an inevitable challenge in species conservation. For rare and elusive species, data related to spatial distribution and abundance, both past and present, are often incomplete. The growing field of historical ecology has recently emerged as a powerful tool for reducing uncertainty in conservation planning. I carried out three investigations to illustrate how historical ecology can be employed to enhance our understanding of regional-scale declines in the Eastern Hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis), an elusive aquatic amphibian. First, I used historical information sources, including newspapers, periodicals, natural history texts, and museum specimens to examine changes to hellbender distribution in New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland over the past 200 years, and explore how human attitudes and human interactions with hellbenders may have influenced their decline in this region. Next, I integrated historical occurrence data with a species distribution model, environmental DNA (eDNA), and traditional field survey methods to assess the current distribution of hellbenders and their habitat across poorly-studied areas of the species’ range in New York State. Finally, I examined the pattern of historical, archaeological, and paleontological accounts of hellbender presence over space and time to investigate the hypothesis that hellbenders are a relatively recent arrival to the Susquehanna River watershed.