I will never forget the first time I touched a Hellbender. I had just started a new field position with Cathy Jachowski at Virginia Tech, and I was out on my first day with the crew. We got in the water, and before I could understand what was going on, someone pulled this enormous, thick, dark, shiny, cucumber-shaped animal from the water. There it was! A Hellbender! Smooth, spotted skin with many folds, two bubble-like eyes that seemed to explore the surface world, and four legs with human-like toes. I had never seen anything like that before. “I can’t believe that is a salamander” I said out loud. From that moment on, I was hooked. At Tennessee State University I conduct research on the distribution of Hellbenders and am evaluating potential causes of Hellbender population declines in Tennessee.
Hellbenders are the only giant salamander species in North America, reaching up to two feet (about 65cm). Their flattened body shape permits them to live under large rocks and move swiftly around the stream bottom without being noticed. They are completely aquatic and rarely visit dry land. They live exclusively in clean streams and rivers with cool, well-oxygenated, fast-flowing water. Contrary to common misconceptions, Hellbenders are harmless, and feed mainly on crayfish, posing no threat to game fish species.
Hellbenders were at one time abundant from southern New York and south to north Alabama and Georgia, and northeast Mississippi. However, in the past 20 years Hellbenders have experienced drastic population declines throughout most of their range. So far we have not yet identified the exact causes behind these declines, but we know that landscape degradation, siltation, pollution, and emerging diseases are all contributing factors. Hellbenders are the “canary of the coal mine” for our streams and rivers, and their decline serves as a warning that we are significantly degrading our streams and rivers.
These incredible animals need our help. They have been around for millions of years, and now they are disappearing at alarming rates. The presence of these animals indicates a healthy ecosystem and great water quality which benefits both people and wildlife. Who will ensure that future generations can live alongside these gentle giants? I will. You will. We will. Hellbenders are simply trying to make it to the next day – just like the rest of us.
One of the potential options for conserving Hellbenders is the construction and installation of artificial habitat structures. These “nest boxes” have been shown to improve habitat conditions for Hellbenders, even to the point where Hellbenders will live in the “nest boxes” for many consecutive years, and use it to deposit eggs and guard the hatchling Hellbenders until they leave the nest. These “nest boxes” (although a temporary solution) provide one potential conservation strategy to give Hellbenders a little more time until we better understand the causes behind their declines. This is where you can help!
I invite you to take a look at my Crowdfunding page where I explain a little more what I am doing and different aspects of my project. Thank you in advance for any support you can provide!
Jeronimo is a graduate student in the Department of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences at Tennessee State University under the supervision of Dr. William Sutton. For more information about Hellbenders or wildlife research at TSU contact him by e-mail or visit the TSU Wildlife Ecology Lab page.