Critter Tales

Eastern hellbenders new video stars

Eastern hellbenders new video stars

By Georgia Department of Natural Resources

Eastern hellbenders, slippery cold water salamanders that can grow more than 2 feet long, are one of the best known, yet least seen amphibians.

That’s why it’s so unusual that a few of them have become new video stars.

The videos became available following a Georgia Department of Natural Resources hellbender survey which canvassed a Georgia mountain stream. The project focuses on the continent's largest salamander and aids understanding of the Georgia-protected species.

DNR wildlife technician Keith Ray and project leader Thomas Floyd videoed the fluid swimming motion of a young hellbender caught and released in Towns County, Georgia. Watch it here.

Another video was taken by Hannah Gunter of Eco-Tech Consultants when she spotted an adult hellbender at night in Union County. As she videoed, it surprised her and caught a fish.

A video titled “Reign of the Den Master,” taken in 2014, has also proved very popular. It shows a male hellbender guarding a nest rock in a Chattahoochee National Forest stream.

Although the origin of the salamander’s name is unknown, yet hellbenders may have more unflattering nicknames than a cross-county football rival. Grampus. Lasagna lizard. Mud devil. Snot otter.

No matter the name, these big salamanders with the jelly-slick skin are the focus of a long-term monitoring and conservation survey effort.

The project, begun in 2011, seeks to learn more about hellbender population trends while finding new sites, and monitoring hellbenders to evaluate abundance and track changes.

Hellbenders are North America’s largest salamander. They can grow longer than two feet. They live in cool, clear streams – the same habitat trout need – from New York to North Georgia and as west as Missouri.

The species’ dependence on pristine streams makes hellbenders, which breathe entirely through their skin, harbingers of poor water quality. Both hellbender subspecies – the eastern and the Ozark, found in the White River system in Missouri and Arkansas – have experienced widespread declines, largely because of habitat suitability.

The primary threat is the influx of sand and other sediments, most of which are washed into streams from farmland and roads. The sediment embeds large rocks, clogging the open spaces hellbenders use for shelter, nesting and ambush sites when hunting prey such as crayfish.

Through the multi-year grants project, the DNR's Nongame Conservation Section identifies, assesses and monitors Georgia hellbender populations.

The recent 2015 field season included the capture, data collection and release of 86 hellbenders from 15 stream reaches.

Six of those hellbenders, from three different stream areas, were initially caught and PIT-tagged in 2012. Floyd said the data will help estimate how many hellbenders inhabit surveyed stretches, which are sampled every three years.

— From the Georgia Department of Natural Resources

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