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.

Hellbenders are the biggest salamanders in the United States, and grow to more than 2 feet long. No one knows exactly how they got their unique name. It could be because they are very flexible or “bendy” and look like they are from hell. Some people say it’s because they came from hell and are bent on returning. How pleasant. Hellbenders spend their entire lives in water and breath only through their skin. Because their skin is like a sponge, hellbenders soak up toxins very easily. So when wild hellbender populations crash, like they have in Maryland and Arkansas, we wonder about the water quality in these places. If it’s not safe for hellbenders, the water probably isn’t safe for fish or other wildlife – or for us.

A hellbender salamander peers out from under a rock.

A hellbender salamander peers out from under a rock.

In addition to pollutants, salamanders are sensitive to the temperature of their environment. At the zoo we are studying how hellbenders are affected by both heatwaves and cold spells. As part of this project, I spend 4 hours every week observing their behaviors, looking for changes caused by warming or cooling. What have I discovered? Hellbenders don’t do much. They spend most of their time hiding or crawling slowly along the gravel floor of their tank. But they do even less when temperatures start to get cold. The hellbenders stopped eating over the winter and lost about one fifth of their body weight!

As an intern in the Appalachian Salamander Lab, I discovered that the phrase “Don’t judge a book by its cover” applies to salamanders too. Hellbenders may not have the extreme cute appeal of baby pandas (although I think the hellbenders are adorable!), but they give us clues about the health of the mountain streams that we depend on.

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