Archive for About Salamanders

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.

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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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