Front Porch Blog

Hellbent on Saving Mountain Rivers

Four weeks left until our Watauga Riverkeeper Festival. Come out on July 24, from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m. at the Community Park in Valle Crucis, N.C.! Enjoy a day of outdoor recreation and a celebration of the river with live music, games, food and if the river is running—a float down the wild and wonderful Watauga River. Meet our mascot: Hillary the Hellbender salamander.

Sasquatch of the Salamanders

Cryptic, territorial, and elusive are traits inherent to the hellbender salamander, a unique and formidable-looking creature with almost prehistoric appeal. The Eastern hellbender is the largest aquatic salamander in the United States, affectionately known as the snot otter, devil dog, and Appalachian alligator. The giant amphibian averages from 12 to 15 inches, but has been known to grow over two feet in length and hides almost reclusively during the day beneath flat rocks in shallow, clean, and quick moving streams.

“If a fisherman catches a hellbender they’ll kill them,” said Jesse Pope, chief naturalist at Grandfather Mountain. “The reason for that is that they think the hellbenders are eating the fish, but that’s just not true.”

Rarely seen due to its nocturnal nature and secluded lifestyle, the hellbender has a voracious appetite, but not for fish. These toothless giants hunt for crayfish, toads and salamanders among other tasty morsels. The hellbender is exclusively found in the mountains and surrounding local areas in the eastern United States, with their largest concentration, here, in western North Carolina. Provided their mountain rivers and streams stay clear and unpolluted, a hellbender will start reproducing at age four and can live for more than 30 years in ideal conditions.

These unique creatures are very important indicators of water quality because as adults they breathe entirely through their skin. That makes them extremely sensitive to pollution and siltation. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists them as near threatened and they are close to qualifying for vulnerable status. In addition to the threat of misled fishermen, the hellbenders are threatened by habitat loss and degradation.
“Hellbenders have to have good water quality and relatively low sediments in the water,” Pope said. “Sediments come from development, impacting streams, road run off and storm water run off.”

Hellbender populations have dramatically declined in the last 25 years and even though several institutions are making heroic attempts to breed them in captivity, none have been successful. “It is critically important for us to protect pristine mountain streams in order to save these rare and threatened salamanders,” said Donna Lisenby Watauga Riverkeeper, “We simply have to stop strip mining in Appalachia because it contributes tone of sediment and pollutants to these irreplaceable headwaters streams.”

“The concern is that a lot of the hellbenders we’re finding are big hellbenders, 15 to 20 years old,” Pope said. “We’re not finding the little ones. This raises concern. Are they remnant populations that are there? Are they no longer reproducing? Are these the last hellbenders that are going to be in those streams?”

Keep a keen eye out at the festival; perhaps you’ll catch a glance of this elusive, rare and spectacular salamander. Rumor has it that you might be able to get a one-of-a-kind Hellbender T-shirt at the festival because, “The Riverkeeper team at Appalachian Voices is hellbent on saving our beloved mountain rivers,” Lisenby said.

More information about hellbenders.





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  1. molly on September 17, 2018 at 11:37 am

    We do in fact have a few! Please feel free to call our Boone office at (828) 262-1500 to find out what sizes and colors we have available.

  2. Pam on September 17, 2018 at 11:01 am

    wondering if you have an Hellbender tshirts?

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