Georgia Wildlife Resources Division
2070 U.S. Hwy. 278, SE, Social Circle, GA 30025
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.