Searching for Traces of the Elusive Hellbender

This project is a collaborative partnership between the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, Buffalo State College, Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, Maryland Department of Natural Resources, The Wilds, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, and Memphis Zoo. Photography by Steven Johnson, Eastern Mennonite University.



New Study Suggests Hellbenders Lived Alongside Wooly Mammoths

Fossil evidence indicates that hellbenders have roamed North American rivers for at least 400,000 years.

Fossil evidence indicates that hellbenders have roamed North American rivers for at least 400,000 years.

A new study published in the Journal of Herpetology reveals that hellbenders once lived alongside wooly mammoths, saber-toothed cats, and other awe-inspiring creatures that roamed North America about 500,000 years ago. The authors, Keila Bredehoeft and Blaine Schubert of East Tennessee State University, examined the fossilized remains of a hellbender-like creature. These fossils are not a new discovery; they were found in a cave near the Potomac River in Maryland nearly 40 years ago. But at the time, there were few skeletons of modern hellbenders for comparison. Initial analysis of fossilized bone from the animal’s jaw, shoulder, leg, and spine suggested that it didn’t quite look like a normal hellbender. The animal was therefore called Cryptobranchus guildayi, and was considered an ancestor of our modern hellbender, Cryptobranchus alleganiensis.

In their new study, Bredehoeft and Schubert challenge the longstanding view that guildayi and alleganiensis are separate species. It turns out that if you look at a larger number of hellbender skeletons, these ancient fossils aren’t so different after all. What does this mean for modern hellbenders? First, they’ve survived on Earth much longer than we originally thought. The fossils are estimated to be between 400,000 and 850,000 years old. Second, hellbenders used to occupy parts of North America where they are now extinct. In this case, the fossils reveal that hellbenders once roamed the Potomac – the same river that flows past our nation’s capitol. Where else did hellbenders roam? Could the species be even more than 850,000 years old? Only the discovery of more fossils can answer these questions. And as you might imagine, it’s not too often that small, squishy river critters become fossilized.

A Clever Way to Find a Rare Salamander

In addition to being fast, slippery and scarce, the elusive hellbender blends in beautifully with its habitat.

In addition to being fast, slippery and scarce, the hellbender blends in perfectly with its habitat.

How do you find a rare animal that lives in swift-flowing streams, hides under enormous rocks, and swims faster than Michael Phelps? The critter we’re looking for is the hellbender (aka snot otter, grampus, devil dog, the list goes on…). The traditional way find these prehistoric-looking salamanders involves several steps: 1) recruit assistants with fast reflexes, 2) wait while everyone squeezes into wetsuits, 3) work your butts off lifting rocks, 4) blindly feel around for something squishy, and 5) hope you get lucky. But now there’s an easier way to do this, and it’s inspired by forensic science. Read more

Deadly fungus threatens U.S. salamanders

A new type of “chytrid” fungus has escaped from Asia and is killing European fire salamanders. This fungus is known as Bsal (short for Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans) and is closely related to the infamous Bd (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis) that has been causing massive die-offs of frogs across the globe. But until recently, no one knew if Bsal could infect other species besides fire salamanders. In a recent study, European researchers tested more than 30 species of frogs and salamanders to see which were susceptible to Bsal. Frog lovers finally got a bit of good news – all 10 frog species tested were completely resistant to Bsal. But a very different – and alarming – result emerged when salamanders were infected with the fungus.

The fungus was first discovered when it started killing European fire salamanders, like the one shown here.

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Hellbenders on HERPIN’ TIME radio

Hellbenders are on the air! Today I discussed the bizarre biology of giant salamanders on Herpin’ Time Radio. The show’s hosts, Justin Guyer and JD Hartzel, are die-hard herpers who promote responsible pet ownership and conservation of amphibians and reptiles. (Though for hellbenders, ‘responsible’ means leaving them in the wild.) Also on the show was Tim Healy from the National Audubon Society and Obed Hernández-Gomez from Purdue University. We talked about Tim’s reintroduction efforts, Obed’s ground-breaking research, and my new role as hellbender DNA detective. Listen to the full story here and learn more about hellbender conservation at Purdue University’s amazing hellbender website.

Fracking in the dark: biological fall out of shale-gas production still largely unknown

With unconventional gas production projected to surge during the next 30 years, determining and minimizing the industry’s effects on nature and wildlife must become a top priority. Image of Wyoming’s Jonah Field, an extreme example of the impacts of fracking operations on landscapes. (Photo courtesy of Ecoflight.)

For salamanders and other freshwater animals in Appalachia, fracking could be the beginning of the end. Working with a group of 7 other conservation biologists, I tried to piece together exactly what we know about the dangers of fracking to wildlife. What we found will surprise you.

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Diving for hellbenders

Biologists from Smithsonian's National Zoo and Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries gear up for a hellbender dive.

Biologists from Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries gear up for a hellbender dive.

How do you find a 2 foot long salamander under 30 feet of water? You put on your SCUBA gear! We were in southwest Virginia this week, diving to the bottom of the New River in search of the elusive hellbender. Read more

Celebrating Earth Day with salamanders at Finzel Swamp

What’s better than finding a longtailed salamander? Finding 3 of them!

What happens when mountains and moisture conspire to form a frost pocket in western Maryland? You get Finzel Swamp – an incredible ecosystem more reminiscent of Canada than southeast Appalachia! Biologists from The Nature Conservancy and Smithsonian’s National Zoo joined forces at Finzel Swamp to hunt for the striking, bright-yellow longtailed salamander. Hear the story from Lauren Landau on WAMU 88.5 Metro Connection this Friday, April 25 at 1 pm.

New Internship Available in Amphibian Health!

Woooood frogA new internship in amphibian health is being offered through the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (Front Royal, VA). The intern will assist in an ongoing study of Ranavirus infection in amphibians throughout Virginia, and the information gained from this research will help protect wild frogs and salamanders in this region.

Activities and learning opportunities

  • Monitor signs of amphibian breeding at ponds throughout northern VA
  • Learn to identify signs of Ranavirus infection in amphibians
  • Collect and euthanize tadpoles for Ranavirus testing
  • Participate in amphibian-related outreach and education efforts Read more

The Snot Otter: A 160-Million-Year-Old National Treasure

HellbenderFew Americans realize that the United States is home to a GIANT, ancient salamander that has roamed the earth since the time of the dinosaurs. Scientists call this creature a hellbender, but it has many colorful names: devil dog, Allegheny alligator, old lasagna sides, hogfish, and (my favorite) snot otter. At nearly 2 ½ feet long, hellbenders are part of a family of giant salamanders (known as Cryptobranchids) that first appeared in central Asia over 160 million years ago. As you’ve surely guessed by the nicknames, it is not an attractive creature (at least not by Homo sapiens’ arbitrary standards). With a brown, flat, slimy, wrinkled body, hellbenders aren’t winning any beauty contests. But they ARE exquisitely bizarre and unlike anything else in the western hemisphere. Read more

ZOMBIE TAKEOVER Saturday night at the Haunted Salamander Lab!

Chaos erupted when ZOMBIES and MAD SCIENTISTS faced off Saturday night at the Haunted Salamander Lab. Check out more pictures below, and find out how we finally defeated the zombies!


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Cleopatra, Tom Brady, and Pepe Le Pew stop by during the first night of Boo at the Zoo 2013!

This year’s Boo at the Zoo is off to a great start! From ancient pharaohs to NFL superstars, we had all sorts of creepy and clever visitors at the Haunted Salamander Lab. It was a great opportunity to see our nocturnal salamanders, and to pose with a life-sized hellbender model. Check out the incredible costumes in this slideshow.

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Cows and Salamanders

Kim and JD teach some energetic 6th graders about local amphibians and reptiles.

Kim and JD teach some energetic 6th graders about local amphibians and reptiles.

Scientists and farmers teamed up this week to teach kids about all the critters that live on and around a farm – including salamanders! Kim and JD were at the annual Farm Field Day in Glade Spring, VA, where more than 300 local 6th graders learned about everything from corn to canebrake rattlesnakes. Read more

Washingtonians are Boozing for Salamanders

Visitors got a rare, behind-the-scenes look at the zoo's salamanders with suds courtesy of Hellbender Brewery.

Visitors got a rare, behind-the-scenes look at the zoo’s salamanders with suds courtesy of Hellbender Brewery.

Where can you toast a microbrew AND help protect endangered salamanders? At the National Zoo’s Suds n’ Salamanders fundraiser! Last weekend this event raised over $7,000 for our new salamander exhibit (to open in 2014), thanks to the generous support of DC’s own Hellbender Brewery. The evening was filled with salamander-themed talks, a silent auction, and, of course, delicious suds. Read more

Muddin’ for miniature mud dogs

An itty-bitty Georgia bender.

An itty-bitty Georgia bender.

Call it a snot otter, grandpus, Allegheny alligator, ol’ lasagna sides, hogfish, devil dog, or mud dog. Yes, the hellbender is a creature of many names. Unfortunately, this assortment of colorful nicknames doesn’t suggest any redeeming qualities. Yet hellbenders are the most extraordinary salamander you’ll ever encounter in Appalachia. There’s nothing like it in the western hemisphere! In fact, its closest cousins are in China and Japan, and grow to be over 5 feet long. Fortunately we have the “miniature” version; hellbenders max out at about 2.5 feet. And “miniature” would turn out to be the theme of our recent trip to Georgia…

Matt finds special meaning in the eyes of a mud dog.

Matt finds special meaning in the eyes of a mud dog.

We made the 600 mile drive down to Chattahoochee National Forest, to the very southern limitsof the hellbender’s range. When I think of Georgia, I think of peaches, plantations and, most of all, hot summer days! Not exactly the type of place I’d expect to find a cold-loving, stream-dwelling salamander. Turns out, the streams in northern Georgia are spring-fed and a numb-your-face kind of cold.

Thomas, Matt and Doug look for hellbenders as the endless rain makes the water more and more cloudy.

Thomas, Matt and Doug continue their determined search as the endless rain clouds the water.

We met up with Thomas Floyd, a biologist from Georgia Department of Natural Resources. He must have worked for the U.S. postal service in a former life, because neither rain, nor sleet, nor hail would stop his hellbender search. We carried on, in spite of the drizzle, and it paid off. Before the end of the day, we had turned up 7 hellbenders, most of which were itty bitty juveniles! These little hellbenders are getting harder and harder to find in many areas. That may be because hellbender streams are becoming filled with sediment (also called silt), which makes the stream cloudy and muddy. And although they’re sometimes called mud dogs, hellbenders can’t live in a muddy stream.

Emma, an intern at the National Zoo, gets her first Georgia muddn' experience.

Emma, an intern at the National Zoo, gets her first southern muddn’ experience.

After our first stellar day of salamander surveys, we were eager to find more little snot otters. But little did we know what the weather had in store for us. We walked through a light drizzle as we left the hotel, and as we made our way up the mountain, the rain started to pick up. “No bid deal”, we thought, “we’re gonna get wet anyway”. But then the rain picked up a little more. And a little more. By the time we parked, the drizzle had turned into a torrential downpour. Shivering, I ran up to Thomas’ truck. As I expected, he was ready to get in the stream.

After all, it doesn’t rain under water.

My field crew and I abandoned our shiny, brand-new rental car, and scrambled into the back of Thomas’ pick-up truck. Mud flew out from under his tires as we bumped along, and I crossed my fingers that we would get through the flooded road ahead. We made it in one piece, and sloshed our way over to the edge of the stream bank. Thomas still had his game face on.

The rain got the best of us, but I give Thomas a high-five for his effort.

The rain got the best of us, but I give Thomas a high-five for his effort.

As we peered through the sheets of rain, our problem became apparent. The rain had turned this stream the color of chocolate milk, making it impossible to see any rocks, let alone a fast, slippery and well-camouflaged salamander. We had hoped that this stream would remain pretty clear, since it was surrounded by healthy forest rather than the tree-less, muddy stream banks that we find at some other hellbender sites. But the rain was coming too fast and hard, and we were outta luck. I gave Thomas a high-five for his effort, and we headed back down the mountain to try and get a warm meal before every restaurant in town lost power.

Hellbendering in Tennessee

Our mobile salamander lab entered new territory this week! We teamed up with Dr. Michael Freake from Lee University to search for wild hellbenders in southern Tennessee.

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A Texas-Sized Hellbender

Team Hellbender: Dan the Stream Man, JD the Noodler, Hellbender Wrangler Kim, and Nurse Veronica

Team Hellbender: Dan the Stream Man, JD the Noodler, Hellbender Wrangler Kim, and Nurse Veronica

We must have lifted 30 rocks this morning, and didn’t find a single hellbender. At one point, we saw something black and wiggly shoot out from under a rock. We spent the next 15 minutes chasing after it, thinking we found a baby hellbender, only to realize we had been duped by a regular old stream salamander. Shortly after that, we came upon a dazzling group of small, bright orange fish that we later identified as saffron shiners, Tennessee shiners, warpaint shiners, mountain redbelly dace, and river chub. The shiners were all crowded around the chub’s rock-covered nest, probably hoping for a tasty egg to slip out. After a half hour of shooting underwater fish pictures, we had started to lose our energy and focus. Things did not look good for team hellbender.

Dace, shiners, and river chub brighten up the stream bed.

Dace, shiners, and river chub brighten up the stream bed.

After stopping for lunch, we dragged ourselves back into the cold stream. I was feeling bored and soggy, and wondered if we were wasting our time at this site. I had only found two hellbenders here before – a little guy back in 2011 and an adult last month that was in pretty bad shape. It’s a popular fishing spot, and hellbenders tend to get caught and killed on fishing lines. My hopes of finding one were quickly fading.

Just as we resumed our search, we heard someone coming down the stream bank. It was Bill Harris, a bushy-bearded fisherman whose two passions in life are fly-tying and riding his bicycle along the Virginia Creeper Trail. Bill has a cute, curly-haired mutt that rides behind him in a covered trailer. Together they clean up the never-ending stream of litter that gets tossed alongside the Creeper. Today Bill was riding with his friend’s son, a 12-year old named James who was visiting for the summer from Texas. Bill had heard a lot about our project and was hoping to show James his first hellbender. The pressure was on.

James the Texan meets his very first hellbender.

James the Texan meets his very first hellbender.

Bill’s salamander senses must have been tingling, because 2 minutes after they showed up, I reached under a boulder and felt the squishy side of a hellbender! I called over JD – he’s our partner from Virginia Game and Inland Fisheries and the best hellbender “noodler” I know. He reached under the rock, and with a little twisting and splashing, wrestled (or “noodled”) out an ENORMOUS hellbender. This thing was 2 feet long and weighed almost 2 ½ pounds, about as heavy as a wooden baseball bat. It was the perfect first hellbender for a kid from Texas.

That Critter Don’t Get Out Much.

Veronica poses with a healthy-looking hellbender.

Veronica catches her first hellbender in the wild!

Imagine if you caught a fish in the river, threw it back, and then caught the exact same fish in the exact same spot a year later. Incredible, right? Well that’s how we felt today when we discovered the same hellbender salamander at the same rock we found it under during our last survey! Hellbenders are known to be pretty faithful to their rocks – once they find a good home, they like to stay there. After all, it can be tough to find a safe spot in a stream with strong currents, snapping turtles, hungry mink, and baited fishing hooks. As we saw in our last post, sometimes life in the stream can get pretty ugly.

Turns out the hellbenders aren’t the only thing that’s slippery in this stream…

A hermit lifestyle seems to be working well for this hellbender. It had all fingers and toes accounted for and was looking quite healthy. Tomorrow we’re heading back to a stream where we once found a footless hellbender. We’ll see if that population of hellbenders is as healthy as the animals that we found today.

And we should probably remember that salamanders aren’t the only ones that need to watch out for themselves…

Footless Hellbenders

This hellbender was missing 3 of its feet. (Photo credit: Lisa Ware)

This hellbender was missing 3 of its feet. (Photo credit: Lisa Ware)

During our last trip to southwest Virginia, we found something very troubling – a hellbender that had lost 3 of its feet. Biologists have found footless hellbenders in other states (particularly Arkansas), and believe that it’s caused by a bacteria or a fungus. Fortunately for us, it’s something that doesn’t affect humans. In this case, the hellbender appeared to be healing well, so the missing feet might have been the result of an injury rather than disease. Perhaps an unfortunate encounter with a snapping turtle? Today we’re leaving DC and heading back down to that stream in search of a footless hellbender. We’re hoping to find some clues to this mystery.

With me is Veronica Acosta, a veterinary technician better known as Nurse Hellbender. She’s equipped with medical supplies to take a small skin sample (also called a biopsy) from the site of a missing foot. We’re hoping that the sample can give us a clue about whether these hellbenders are experiencing disease or simply injuries. A biopsy is the same approach that a doctor would use to determine if a lump or mole was cancerous. This biopsy is just a little more… slimy.

So we’re off. We have 3 days to try and find a footless hellbender. Fingers crossed…

Spying on Hellbenders

Emma doesn't miss anything.

Emma doesn’t miss a thing.

I’ve spent endless hours watching the National Zoo’s slimy, brown hellbenders and have finally figured out what these salamanders do all night. My name is Emma, and I’m a high school senior (soon to be graduate) interning at the zoo’s Appalachian Salamander Lab in the Reptile Discovery Center.  I come in early in the morning, before the zoo is open, to observe hellbenders in the dark – when they are most active. But before I tell you what I discovered, let me introduce you to my amphibian acquaintances. Hellbenders are a type of salamander that live in the Appalachian mountains, from Virginia to New York, and in the Ozarks (Arkansas and Missouri). Salamanders are amphibians, like frogs and caecilians. Read more

Go Behind-the-Scenes to Help Salamanders!

FlyerSign up for a tour of the National Zoo’s Reptile Discovery Center and 100% of the proceeds will go towards a new, super-salamander exhibit.
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An epic discovery – Part 2

Students from Cornerstone Christian Academy see their first hellbender in the wild!

Students from Cornerstone Christian Academy see their first hellbender in the wild!

continued from Part 1

I plunged my head into the frigid, rushing water to try and get a peek at the hellbender, wondering if I might have been fooled by a fish. But it was right there, staring back at me from beneath the edge of the boulder. We would have one chance to catch this hellbender, because it would almost certainly retreat deep under the boulder as soon as it got spooked. Read more

An epic discovery – Part 1

Kim fights the current in search of a hellbender.

Kim fights the current in search of a hellbender.

It was our last day of surveying for hellbender salamanders in southwest Virginia, and as we approached the stream, my heart sank. There was no question about it – the stream was raging. The last few weeks of rain had flooded this watershed, and it would be incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to catch a slippery salamander under 3 feet of rushing water. On top of it, a group of high school students were meeting up with us to see their first hellbender in the wild. I was determined to make it a memorable experience for them… come hellbender or high water.  Read more

Fish n’ Microchips

A recent hellbender meal, believed to be a stoneroller fish (Campostoma anomalum)

A recent hellbender meal, believed to be a stoneroller fish (Campostoma anomalum).

Imagine swallowing a 25-pound, 5-foot long fish in a single gulp… and then going to the doctor for a physical exam. Well that’s more or less what a hellbender salamander experienced during one of our stream surveys this week. Read more


Clinostomum complanatum

Clinostomum complanatum, also known as the yellow grub.

With the help of the National Zoo’s pathologist, Dr. Tim Walsh, we solved the mystery of the yellow bump-covered darters! Official diagnosis? Grubs. That’s right, the good ol’ encysting fluke worm also known as the yellow grub (Clinostomum). This is a common parasite that starts its life in a snail, ends up in a bird, and in the middle lives in freshwater fish like darters, dace, shiners, and chubs. The worms hatch in the water, but have only hours to find a snail host or else face certain death. Once the larval grubs leave the snail, they enter the fish and set up shop in its flesh, making a swollen lump called a metacercaria. Are they harmful to fish? Sometimes. Severe infestations can be fatal. But then again many fish can get by just fine with a more modest number of the yellow, wriggling parasites. Are they harmful to humans? Well… It seems like the jury is still out on that one. Traditional thinking seems to be that, like other parasites of birds, this grub won’t infect people. But in 1995 a Korean man went to the doctor with pain and a “foreign body sensation” in his throat. Yup, you guessed it – he got grubs. Since then many other infections in humans have been reported, always involving individuals who eat uncooked fish. So it’s always a good idea to cook fish thoroughly.

For the time being we’ll keep an eye on this grub-infested fish population. It will be interesting to see how they cope with the parasites. Why did these grubs suddenly appear in a new fish population? We may never know, but we’re still looking for clues.

You can find out more information about yellow grubs and other fish parasites at the PA Fish & Boat Commission website.