Login | December 10, 2018

Hunt for hellbenders is part of broader plan to protect them

Published: December 6, 2018

ATLANTA (AP) — Researchers are donning wetsuits and wading into north Georgia streams to conduct an underwater search for giant salamanders known as hellbenders.

The effort is part of a survey designed to get a sense of the state of the hellbender in the north Georgia mountains.

Scientists have come to realize that the big salamanders might be in peril — and the federal government is now considering whether to protect them, WABE Radio reported.

Hellbenders can grow to nearly 2 feet (.6 meters) long and might live as long as 20 or 30 years, spending much of their time beneath rocks in cold, clean streams.

They have flat, round heads and a wide mouth that makes them look like they're smiling.

"I don't know that there's a lot going on in a hellbender's head. But it's a face a mother and a herpetologist can love," says Thomas Floyd, a wildlife biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources who's leading the survey.

They also have many nicknames.

"I've heard a few, most common in this portion of the southern Appalachians is probably mud dog," says Floyd.

There's also snot otter.

He continues: "Water dog, grampus, grumpus, mollyhugger, horny head, devil dog."

And finally, old lasagna sides, in recognition of the curvy flap of skin that runs down hellbenders' torsos.

In north Georgia, the group of researchers is looking for hellbenders because the species seems to be in trouble, so they're trying to learn more about where they live and how they're doing. They check Georgia streams every few years for hellbenders to get a sense of their demographics.

After just a few minutes of looking, they find one. It's a young hellbender, which is especially exciting, says Floyd.

"It's neat to see an adult, but it's even neater to see a small juvenile," he says.

That's because in streams where hellbenders aren't doing well, researchers only find the adults, meaning, for some reason, they're not reproducing well, or the eggs or young salamanders aren't surviving. A stream like that will eventually lose its hellbenders.

Across their range, hellbenders are in decline, scientists say. Their range generally covers the Appalachian Mountains, from southern New York to North Georgia.

"So historically, hellbenders occurred in about 15 states and probably across more than 500 streams," says Bill Hopkins, a professor at Virginia Tech who studies hellbenders.

Researchers began realizing in the 1980s that hellbender numbers were dropping, Hopkins said. Since then, they've figured out that about 40 percent of hellbender populations are either totally gone or about to be. Another 40 percent are declining.

"It's really bad, and I think hellbender biologists across the nation would agree with that," Hopkins says. "That's something that we're all really, really worried about, and we're trying to understand what the causes are."

The biggest problem for hellbenders is damage to those clean streams they live in; when forests get cut down, or roads are built, or an area gets developed, that can pollute or silt up a stream and make it bad for hellbenders.

Sometimes people intentionally kill hellbenders, so that's a problem, too. Disease could be an issue. And then there's climate change, "something that we're very worried about," Hopkins says.

Climate change could affect them in a few ways. Those cold streams the hellbenders like could get too warm. The forests around the clean cold streams could change and potentially not shade the streams as much or filter the water as effectively. And extreme weather - heavy storms or drought - can also affect the streams, either by drying them up, or flooding them and washing away the rocks the hellbenders live under.

"It's almost like climate change is this accelerator that really amplifies the effects of all the other threats that this animal experiences," Hopkins says.