North Carolina

America’s biggest salamanders: Meet the ‘snot otters’ that call the NC mountains home

What are hellbenders?

Well, to begin with hellbenders are North America's largest salamander, an ambush predator and most likely an indicator of high quality water.
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Well, to begin with hellbenders are North America's largest salamander, an ambush predator and most likely an indicator of high quality water.

Behind a small, quiet church tucked away in the woods of the Appalachian Mountains lies a hidden metropolis of giant salamanders.

They’re known as Eastern hellbenders, and are the largest salamanders in the Americas, averaging 12 to 29 inches, weighing over 3 pounds and living up to 30 years. They’re also sometimes called “snot otters,” an apt nickname given the layer of mucus covering their loose, muddy brown skin.

At more than two feet in length mature hellbenders are North America’s largest salamander and third largest in the world. The ambush predators that hole up under rocks during the day in some mountain streams can live to 30 years or more. John D. Simmons

Hellbenders can be easy to miss, since they blend right in with the smooth rocks that cover the riverbed. But the water runs clear, cold and fast through this bend in the river, which makes it the perfect habitat for hellbenders.

In fact, this 150-meter stretch is known as one of the best spots in the world for finding Eastern hellbenders, said Michael Gangloff, assistant professor of Freshwater Conservation Biology at Appalachian State University.

Gangloff oversees the team of researchers that geared up in full wetsuits and snorkels to conduct a survey of the area’s hellbender population last month.

“We go out to do this kind of field research about every day in the summer, if the weather is appropriate,” Gangloff said. “Or, I should say, the students do.”

By the end of the afternoon, the team found a total of 11 hellbenders — just two shy of the most they’ve ever found in a day. The last one caught was also the biggest, weighing 720 grams (1.6 pounds) at a whopping 53.5 centimeters (2.14 feet) long.

After lifting a large stone, Michael Thompson watches Sam Fritz as he jubilantly raises a hellbender during a survey on Friday, July 26, 2019.. Thompson and Fritz are graduate students at Appalachian State University. John D. Simmons

Eastern hellbenders are listed as a species of concern by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, and a species of greatest conservation need in the N.C. Wildlife Action Plan.

What makes finding a concentrated “city of hellbenders” like this especially significant is the salamander’s ability to indicate water quality.

Hellbenders breathe through their skin, meaning they must live in clean, uncontaminated water to survive. The presence, or absence, of hellbenders can act as a sign of pollution levels.

Catching the critters

The search for hellbenders starts with seeking out places along the riverbed they might be hiding in. Because they’re nocturnal, hellbenders spend most of their days nesting under large rocks, logs or holes in bedrock.

Researchers capture the salamanders either by blind reaching into these potential nests or by turning over rocks that seem promising with log-lifting equipment.

Hellbenders are hard to catch and easy to lose, given their slippery nature. So, when someone pops out of the water, hellbender in hand, there’s another researcher waiting on the bank with a net ready. The animal is then transferred to a mesh bag until it can be processed.

Each hellbender has its measurements, weight and appearance logged. It’s then taken back into the river to be released in the same spot it was captured.

Freddy Ortega, a graduate student at Appalachian State University, recorded vital statistics such as weight and length of hellbenders during a recent survey on Friday, July 26, 2019. John D. Simmons

Freddy Ortega, a graduate student at App State, is the one handling the processing for this survey. His thesis proposal centers around determining best practices for these kinds of hellbender surveys.

Eastern hellbenders are nocturnal creatures and leave their nests to hunt at night. Because of this, Ortega suggests it would be more beneficial to conduct hellbender surveys at night. This way, researchers could avoid disturbing the hellbenders and their habitats with the kind of labor-intensive rock-turning that the team did in this survey.

“I’d like to work with them for the rest of my life,” Ortega said. “I’ve always really liked salamanders, I grew up catching them. And I’ve also worked with freshwater mussels and other fish, but this has been my favorite so far.”