The eastern hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleghaniensis) has a face some think only a mother could love. Photo by Brian Gratwicke.
Happy Earth Day, everyone! To celebrate this occasion, I want to kick it off with some information on the largest salamander in the United States, the eastern hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleghaniensis alleghaniensis). Hellbenders (a.k.a. snot otters, lasagnasides, etc.) are believed to be from a more primitive and ancient lineage of salamanders that is found only here in the U.S. and in Asia. There are two kinds of hellbenders here in the States: our Eastern hellbender and the Ozark hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleghaniensis bishopi). In Asia, there are two species: the Japanese giant salamander (Andrias japonicus) and the Chinese giant salamander (Andrias davidianus). All are highly threatened by habitat loss and pollution of waterways.
In Virginia, hellbenders are found more in the Southwestern part of the state and prefer habitats with lots of rocks. If you want to see them, you will quickly find that those who know where they can be found are protective of that knowledge, and for good reason. The eastern hellbender is listed by the Virginia Wildlife Action Plan as Tier II: Very High Conservation Need, and they are thought to be found in only a few waterways.
There are several characteristics that make hellbenders completely unique among other salamanders in Virginia. First, they are entirely aquatic, with the adults using cutaneous respiration to absorb dissolved oxygen from the water (this is why their sides are so wrinkly – to create more surface area for oxygen absorption). Second, the father hellbender guards the eggs in a den, usually formed under a large rock or in a burrow. Thirdly, they are extremely slimy! This can help them escape from predators, as they are very hard to hold on to and can exude nasty-tasting slime.
Baby hellbenders basically look like adorable miniatures of the adults.
Eastern hellbenders are one of Virginia’s most unique and fascinating amphibians, but unfortunately they are in danger from a myriad of threats. Diseases such as the amphibian chytrid fungus (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis) and ranavirus may be negatively affecting some populations. In some areas, people may kill hellbenders due to fear, misconceptions or prejudices against them (imagine if you did not know about hellbenders and were fishing when you pulled in a huge salamander – you would probably be frightened, too). These large salamanders, like many other amphibians, are also sensitive to pollutants in their environment (see this awesome animated video). One of the greatest problems, however, is siltation and development of waterways. Silt is the number one pollutant in Virginia and originates from runoff and erosion. It can cover up or fill in the rock crevices that hellbenders use as dens or homes. There are several initiatives such as Help the Hellbender that seek to educate others and to provide funding for research and conservation of these amphibians. I hope that we will be able to conserve hellbenders for future generations to appreciate and be awed by.