Buried deep within the untamed wilderness of Western Pennsylvania, lives an aquatic monstrosity so bloodthirsty, so fearsome, so nightmarishly hideous that it must enshroud itself within the muddy river bottoms in order to avoid the burning torches and sharpened pitchforks of the terrified townsfolk nearby. It emerges from its dark recluse during the twilight hours to sate its appetite on whatever poor, hapless creatures are foolhardy enough to be found within its domain. The mere mention of this vile creature’s name is enough to turn even the most courageous and daring man into a sniveling pile of goo. May God have mercy on your soul if you ever find yourself face to face with… the HELLBENDER!
So, now that I’ve got your attention, let’s talk about what the hellbender really is. Cryptobranchus alleganiensis is North America’s largest salamander, and the third largest salamander in the world, falling close behind the Chinese and Japanese giant salamanders. They’re also known as snot otters, devil dogs, Allegheny alligators, leverian water-newts, and grampus.
They’re carnivorous creatures yes, but bloodthirsty? Now that’s a bit of a stretch. Unless of course you’re a crayfish, in which case a hellbender is the equivalent of a T-Rex or Godzilla. Then again, if you’re a crayfish you don’t know how to read. Warning you about the dangers of hellbenders is pointless. Stupid crayfish.
Fearsome? Hardly. Hideous? Well, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. For now, let’s just say that they’re different looking. Maybe, unique in appearance? An acquired taste? Let’s be honest, they’re not going to win any beauty pageants in the near future. They’ve got that “just got ran over by a steam roller” look. Then there’s the beady eyes, the loose, wrinkly skin, and the fact that they’re a two-foot long salamander covered in slime. Once you can look past all that and the initial shock of seeing one wears off, well they’re actually kind of cute.
Here’s the thing about all those “unique” features, they all serve a very specific purpose that allow the hellbender to fill a very specific niche in our Western Pennsylvania ecosystem. The flat bodies? They’re dorsoventrally compressed so that they can safely hide from predators underneath large rocks in the riverbed. The beady eyes? While the hellbender might not have the greatest eyesight in the world, they make up for it with a highly developed sense of smell. They’re also covered from head-to-tail with light-sensitive cells. Using these, the hellbender is able to ensure that no part of their body is exposed when hiding. We’ve all had that embarrassing game of hide-and-seek where we got caught because a foot or an elbow were sticking out from behind the curtain. Well, the hellbender would never have that problem, and it’s a good thing too because getting caught means getting eaten.
The loose, wrinkly skin is perhaps the coolest, and definitely the most unique adaptation. During the course of their lives – which can last between 30-50 years by the way – hellbenders have three different methods of obtaining oxygen: gills, lungs, and subcutaneously. They’re born with external gills, which is the main reason they’re most commonly confused with mudpuppies. After about a year or so, the gills fall off and the hellbender’s primary method of respiration is via the capillaries found within its skin folds. As the water current flows past the hellbender, the skin folds along the side of the its body absorb dissolved oxygen. It’s one of the main reasons that hellbenders can only be found in steadily moving streams and rivers. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the main reasons that they’re listed as “near threatened”.
Because hellbenders require such a specific type of environment, they possess an extreme sensitivity to environmental changes. While the species is still listed as near-threatened, they’re on the rise in Western PA. This is great news, and not only for the hellbenders. Eric Chapman is the Director of Aquatic Science for the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy (WPC), and has been working with hellbenders for over 20 years. He knows exactly what a healthy hellbender population means for the environment. “Finding hellbenders means that the waterway has had a stable water quality for some time. They’re kind of like the canary in the coal mine. Amphibians are always the first group to drop off due to environmental changes, because they’re so sensitive.
“Problems we’ve seen in Western Pennsylvania is where waterways were decimated by human population. Clarion River was an example of this, but the good news is that it’s on the rebound. They’ve found Hellbenders in the Clarion for the first time since the 1900’s. And in the Tionesta Creek there is an unbelievable population.”
Chapman and the rest of the WPC know that cleaning up the water quality of Pennsylvania’s waterways is only the first half of the battle. Now, we have to maintain the quality, and keeping an eye on the hellbender population is a great way to do that. However, this is easier said than done. Right now, the process of searching for and capturing hellbenders is slow and tedious. It takes a group of 8-10 people searching the waterways, lifting the giant flat rocks found on the bottom of streams and rivers, and feeling around blindly for one of the elusive creatures.
Alysha Trexler is a watershed scientist with the WPC, and the official “Queen of Catching Hellbenders”. “It’s like trying to catch a water balloon, covered in snot. Nothing else feels like one. They secrete a nasty substance that resembles rubber cement. You have to go slow and calm, but once you get your hands on one, you can’t let go.”
And of course, there’s no guarantee that you’ll find a hellbender underneath the rocks, or that what you do find is going to be friendly. “We’ve found adult snapping turtles under the rocks, catfish that can spine you, crayfish. Lots of things that can hurt you while you’re blindly searching.
“You also have people holding a large rock over your head. It’s a real trust situation but I work with practiced veterans.”
Once the hellbenders are caught, members of the WPC or volunteers will weigh the hellbenders, measure their length, and sex them. They also put a small RFID chip inside their tail so they can keep track of which animals they’ve caught in the past. These are the same chips that a veterinarian might place in your dog or cat. Afterwards the hellbenders are released back into their habitat.
What’s the biggest one they’ve caught in Western PA? That would be the monster that measured 27 inches long and weighed in at nearly four pounds!
Members of the WPC are very adamant about not disturbing the hellbenders during their mating season, as well as not disturbing the creature’s habitats while there may still be eggs present. This gives them about a one-month window in which to search for and track the hellbender population.
While the act of catching hellbenders may not be getting any easier, the process of searching for their locations has been thanks to advancements in environmental DNA (eDNA) technology. eDNA is genetic material that’s collected from a variety of environmental samples. In terms of searching for hellbenders that environmental sample is, of course, water. Members of the WPC collect water samples from different areas along a stream or river, then send these samples off to geneticist Dr. Amy McMillan at Buffalo State University. By testing these samples, Dr. McMillan is able to narrow down which locations are most likely to contain the hellbender species.
“Traditionally, we use a lot of people and a lot of time to survey a stream,” says Chapman. Twelve people and an eight-hour day lets us cover about 100-meters of stream. With eDNA results, it takes two people and it’s a much quicker process. It’s not a perfect science yet, but it’s very helpful in saving time and resources. The technology is moving forward.”
What’s exciting for most people is that there’s a creature that they’ve never seen, never even heard of, living in their own backyard. These are unique and beautiful (in their own way) creatures that embody the spirit of discovery most outdoor enthusiasts hold paramount. We trudge through the muck and bramble bushes just for the opportunity to spot something truly wild and natural. That being said, do not go looking for hellbenders. Especially do not go looking for hellbenders with the intent of catching one. Not only is this incredibly dangerous (for the hellbender, not for the person) but there’s also a pretty hefty fine involved if your caught. Remember, these are incredibly sensitive creatures. Imagine if someone ripped off the roof of your house just so they could snap a picture of you with their cell phone. If you’re really interested in hellbenders, you might want to consider contacting one of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy Offices. They could always use some more volunteers to help out with the hellbender surveys and this is by far the best way to get a closer look at these magnificent creatures in the wild.
Find more information about wildlife in the PA Great Outdoors region online at VisitPAGO.com or call (814) 849-5197.