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.
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.
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
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.