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…
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.
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.
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.
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.