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.