by Rex Springston / Richmond Times-Dispatch
This is a heck of a bad time for the hellbender.
Also known as the snot otter, devil dog and Allegheny alligator, the hellbender is a slimy, mud-colored, salami-sized salamander that inspires folklore and misplaced fear.
The largest salamander in the Western Hemisphere, the hellbender has prospered in clean, cold Appalachian streams, including some in what is now Southwest Virginia, for eons, changing little since the age of dinosaurs.
And now hellbenders are dying. In Virginia and other states, scientists say, the animals have disappeared from some stream stretches.
That worries scientists because hellbenders, which breathe through their skins and are sensitive to pollution, are good indicators of water quality.
“Hellbenders tell us that our streams are healthy,” said Kimberly Terrell, a wildlife biologist with the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington. “If the hellbenders start disappearing, there is probably something wrong with our streams. And most of us live downstream from hellbenders.”
Pollution appears to be a big cause of the hellbenders’ plight. Also, some people poach hellbenders to sell as pets. And other people, scared by the ugly animals and believing them poisonous, kill them on sight.
Hellbenders, which spend most of their time hiding under rocks and eating crawfish, are harmless.
Near Damascus on Wednesday, Terrell, 31, and J.D. Kleopfer, 49, a state biologist, donned wetsuits and with two helpers waded into a swift, cold stream for a hellbender hunt.
Terrell and Kleopfer made a colorful duo — she blonde and petite, he tall and muscular, both sporting tattoos. The scientists are part of a four-year, $319,000 study in its first full year, designed to find out where hellbenders live in Virginia and how they are doing. It is the first comprehensive assessment of hellbenders in Virginia. The money comes from federal grants funneled through the state.
The stream, in Washington County about 300 miles southwest of Richmond, flowed in babbling riffles past maples, hemlocks and rhododendrons. It was about 10 yards wide, dappled with bright sun and shade. For a hellbender home, the place looked heavenly.
As Terrell and Kleopfer, in snorkeling gear, lifted rocks, National Zoo employee Veronica Acosta and volunteer Dan Nissen stood at the ready with nets.
The going was slow. After looking for more than 30 minutes, the scientists flushed a hellbender from under a rock, but it slipped past the nets and sped downstream.
“That’s why they call it hellbender hunting, not catching,” said Nissen, a retired state employee.
About 90 minutes into the search, Terrell spotted a hellbender head, flat and dark as a sausage patty, under a rock the size of a small coffee table.
Using a hoelike tool, Kleopfer pried up the rock. Again, the animal sped out past the nets, but Kleopfer half-swam, half-lunged about 10 feet back and caught the slippery creature in his gloved hands. He dropped it in a net.
“Good job, guys,” Terrell said.
They took the hellbender to the bank for an exam. In a lidless plastic box, it looked like a long blob of brown Jell-O with legs and beady eyes.
“You can see our challenge in getting people excited about him,” Terrell said.
Alarmed, the animal exuded a defensive slime.
“That’s why they’re called snot otters,” said Kleopfer, who works for the state Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.
The scientists measured the animal (about 16 inches and nearly 1 pound), drew blood and inserted under its skin a tiny microchip that will identify it if it’s caught again.
Tests done later on the blood will tell, among other things, if the creature had high levels of stress-related hormones — a sign that it may have been exposed to pollution or some other problem.
Hellbenders like cool, swift waters, which are high in oxygen. Terrell also is studying whether global warming poses a threat, but she said, “That’s more of a concern about the future.”
She put the hellbender back by its rock.
The animal, the eastern hellbender, lives in mountain streams from southern New York to north Georgia. A close relative, the Ozark hellbender, lives in Missouri and Arkansas. Hellbenders are stocky and can exceed 2 feet in length. The only larger salamanders are two Asian relatives that can reach 5 feet, experts say.
While hellbenders have disappeared in parts of Virginia and seem OK in others, scientists need a better understanding of their status to gauge future changes.
The scientists hope that in learning more about hellbenders, they can come up with ways to help them. For example, the research may turn up places where streamside plantings would reduce erosion, which is a big threat.
The origin of the hellbender name is unclear. One story has it that mountain people thought the ugly animal came from hell and was bent on going back. Terrell, who previously worked with more charismatic cheetahs, has succumbed to the subtle allure of the hellbender.
“I think they are adorable,” she said in an interview before the hunt. “They really grow on you, especially the feel of them. They feel soft and squishy. They feel like an eel dipped in Crisco.”
Hellbenders have changed little since their ancestors swam with dinosaurs nearly 200 million years ago, Kleopfer said. “I know it sounds like a cliché, but they absolutely are living fossils.”
Bill Hopkins, a Virginia Tech biologist who also is involved in the hellbender study, said Virginians should take pride in having such an unusual animal in their waters.
Salamanders, which resemble lizards but are more closely related to frogs, are usually just a few inches long.
Schoolchildren love seeing hellbenders, Hopkins said. “To see a salamander as long as your arm is pretty breathtaking.”