Snot Otter. Devil Dog. Mollyhugger. Alleghany Alligator. Intimidating names sure to unnerve the most intrepid explorer, yet they all refer to the same diminutive beast, a beast I was to spend the weekend trying to find in the mountains of northwest Alabama.
Of all its names, Cryptobranchus alleganiensis is most commonly referred to as the hellbender. It’s the largest salamander in North America, and by far. Reaching over two feet long, the hellbender prowls the depths of pristine, mountain streams looking for crayfish to eat. Picture a giant brown, chunky salamander and you’ve probably got a pretty good idea of what they look like. They have a flattened appearance, which helps them fit under rocks when they’re hiding, and small beady eyes. Hellbenders can be found all the way from southern New York to the creeks meandering through the mountains of north Alabama and Georgia, yet populations are in decline throughout their range.
These giant salamanders are in trouble: although dams, over-collecting for the pet trade, and wanton killing all take a toll on populations, perhaps their primary threat is siltation. Agriculture and development both lead to increased silt in streams, which smothers the rocky habitats the hellbenders need to survive and reproduce. Hellbenders prefer clear, clean streams with lots of rock cover. They mate and nest under large rocks; males will protect the eggs until they hatch, providing them oxygen by circulating the water with movements of their body.
Only a handful of hellbenders have been observed in Alabama over the last decade, all within the same general region: the creeks and streams nestled in the valleys in the state’s northwest corner. To determine if these sporadic observations were signs of a healthy, breeding population, a few Auburn colleagues and I suited up and prepared for a five hour drive.
Jim and Faye Lacefield began purchasing land in the area almost thirty years ago, culminating in over 400 acres of what is now known as the Cane Creek Canyon Nature Preserve. Their objective was to conserve a unique ecosystem that was under threat of impending human encroachment and development. However, they’ve never had the intention of keeping it to themselves; the Preserve is open to hikers, nature enthusiasts, boy scouts and anyone else that wishes to enjoy the scenic vistas, the majestic waterfalls, or look for snot otters. Can you find the hellbender in the picture on the right? The stream represents nice hellbender habitat elsewhere.
On Saturday morning, Jim met us at the Preserve to show us some creeks that could potentially harbor hellbenders. As we took in the scenery, we became particularly interested in some of the caves and overhangs we passed. They looked like perfect habitat for a number of interesting amphibians, like slimy, cave, green and dusky salamanders. But those could wait, we were after bigger prey.
We were encouraged by the vast expanses of hardwood forest on the property. These forests prevent erosion and keep silt from entering the pristine streams. Although the clear creeks had many promising rocks scattered throughout, the water flow was low. We decided to give it our all but we weren’t optimistic; since the creek was so shallow, it wasn’t a stretch to assume that it periodically dried up completely, suggesting that hellbenders couldn’t persist here. The strategy was simple; I was to lift rocks while my frequent field companion, Sean Graham, thrust his hands underneath to feel for the slimy form of a giant salamander.
Some of the rocks were huge and tested my strength. As I strained to keep them upright, I occasionally yelled at Sean to hurry up so his outstretched arms wouldn’t get crushed by a rock slipping from my grasp. After about an hour, we started to tire. Although we found many crayfish, there were no hellbenders to eat them.
There were also lots of small dusky salamanders crawling around the stream. At one point I felt an odd wriggling from within my sandal, as I lifted up my foot to investigate, an inch-long dusky salamander fell out and splashed into the water. If only the hellbenders were this easy to find.
We decided to return that night to investigate the several caves and look for some other animals. After dark, we probed the many crevices with the beams of our headlights and found numerous small salamanders hiding within cracks.
Many revealed only their face, perhaps waiting for an unlucky cricket to wander by. When I spotted them, they quickly ducked back into their holes.
I also found a worm snake within a cluster of grass, a species I had never seen before. This snake is small, less than a foot long, with a bright pink belly. It’s rarely found above ground and, as its name suggests, eats primarily worms.
The next day, we began the long, solemn drive back to Auburn. Over the weekend, we managed to see about 16 different kinds of amphibians and reptiles, including black kingsnakes and pickerel frogs, species which are hard to find elsewhere. But the status of hellbenders in Alabama remains a mystery and is likely precarious. The last sighting in the state was in 2006, a large dead adult found floating down a mountain stream.
The author and a hellbender survey crew on a previous effort in northeast Georgia in 2005
The column originally ran in November 2008
Hellbender photos courtesy of Jeff Humphries