Grampus. Lasagna lizard. Mud devil. Snot otter.
Hellbenders may have more unflattering nicknames than a cross-county football rival, but these big salamanders with the jelly-slick skin are attracting some positive, and needed, conservation attention.
The Georgia Department of Natural Resources began a long-term monitoring and survey effort focused on eastern hellbenders this year. Goals include learning more about hellbender population trends, finding new sites, and monitoring hellbenders to evaluate abundance and track changes in Georgia, according to project leader Thomas Floyd.
“One of the healthiest populations in North America is in the North Georgia mountains,” said Floyd, a wildlife biologist with the DNR Wildlife Resources Division’s Nongame Conservation Section. “… It’s really important for us to get baseline data so we know in the future how this salamander is doing.”
Hellbenders are North America’s largest salamander. They can grow longer than 2 feet. They live in cool, clear streams – the same habitat trout need – from New York to North Georgia and as far west as Missouri. Their dependence on pristine streams makes hellbenders, which breathe entirely through their skin, harbingers of poor water quality.
Yet, both hellbender subspecies – the eastern and the Ozark, found in the White River system in Missouri and Arkansas – have experienced widespread declines, largely because of declines in habitat suitability. The primary threat is the influx of sand and other sediments, most of which are washed into streams from farmland and roads. The sediment embeds large rocks, clogging the open spaces hellbenders use for shelter, nesting and ambush sites when hunting prey such as crayfish.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated Ozark hellbenders as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act. The agency also finalized its decision to add Ozark and eastern hellbenders to the list of rare wildlife regulated through the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. The hope is to curb unauthorized international trade.
Eastern hellbenders are a candidate for federal listing. In Georgia, they are already state-listed as threatened and no longer found in at least eight streams they once inhabited. Eastern hellbenders also are a high-priority species in the State Wildlife Action Plan, the comprehensive strategy that guides DNR efforts to conserve biological diversity.
During this year’s sampling season, Thomas and others surveyed stream stretches in the Toccoa, Nottely, Cartecay and Upper Little Tennessee River drainages, catching 36 hellbenders. They documented hellbenders in part of the Nottely that had not been sampled. But none were found in the Cartecay and Upper Little Tennessee reaches, where the large salamanders had been recorded before.
Surveys will begin again in the spring. The information will build on a 2005 Georgia survey and research in other states.
It will also help ensure the future of a seldom-seen salamander with a list of hard-to-forget nicknames.
What Can You Do
- Anglers and others who see a hellbender are encouraged to report the occurrence and location to Thomas Floyd, at firstname.lastname@example.org or (478) 994-1438.
- Help conserve rare, endangered and other nongame wildlife in Georgia. Buy or renew a bald eagle or hummingbird license plate, contribute to the Wildlife Conservation Fund state income tax checkoff or donate directly to the fund. All support the DNR Nongame Conservation Section, which receives no state general funds for its mission to conserve wildlife not legally hunted, fished for or trapped, as well as Georgia’s rare plants and natural habitats in the state. Details: www.georgiawildlife.com/conservation.
- In late August, Floyd led a small crew on the last survey of the monitoring season, which ends when hellbenders begin nesting. (Project video at www.youtube.com/GeorgiaWildlife, under “Conservation” tab.)
- Searchers ran their hands into gaps under large rocks in a Chattahoochee National Forest stream. They lifted some rocks and worked the suddenly turbid water underneath with nets. Floyd snorkeled deeper runs, trying to spot the almost-formless amphibians whose mottled brown and gray coloration blends with the streambed.
- On this trip, the group caught three hellbenders. Each was weighed, measured, swabbed to check for amphibian diseases, sampled for DNA and tagged with a Passive Integrated Transponder, or PIT, for future identification.
- During the entire 2011 monitoring season, 36 hellbenders were caught.
Hellbenders Are ...
- Fully aquatic salamanders, spending their entire lives in streams and rivers.
- Found in at least 20 Georgia trout streams. (Georgia is a top state in amphibian diversity.)
- Kin to Chinese and Japanese giant salamanders, which can top 100 pounds and 6 feet in length.
- Equipped with internal gills, yet they breathe almost exclusively through their skin.
- Usually docile when handled. But they can bite. Skin secretions make them difficult to handle.
- Death on crayfish, which make up most of their diet. They also eat small fish, snails, frogs, snakes, small mammals, and hellbender eggs and larvae.
- Long-lived. One reached 29 years in captivity.
- Threatened also by stream impoundment and pollution from agricultural and industrial runoff.
- Learn more: Hellbender monitoring project video, www.youtube.com/GeorgiaWildlife (under “Conservation” tab); DNR rare species profiles, www.georgiawildlife.com/rare_species_profiles.