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To many observers, the two-foot-long, flat-headed salamander with the fleshy skin folds that resemble layered noodles—hence the nickname “Old Lasagna Sides”—is not the most appealing critter in the Blue Ridge. “Most folks see ‘em and say, ‘My gosh, they’re hideously ugly,” says J.D. Kleopfer, a herpetologist at the Virginia Dept. of Game and Inland Fisheries, who is trying to save hellbenders from extinction. “But beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The more you look at ‘em and the more you get to know ‘em, the more attractive they become.”
In southern Appalachia, hellbenders date back about 170 million years. Often unflatteringly called “devil dog,” “snot otter” or “mud puppy,” and found only in cool, clear streams in the mountains and foothills of the eastern U.S., their closest relatives are the giant salamanders of China and Japan. “So that in itself,” Kleopfer says, “makes them a unique living fossil.”
Like many aquatic species, hellbenders have suffered a decline due to man-made habitat loss from pesticide pollution, siltation from land clearing and removal of hiding places. “They really are the canary in the coal mine of stream health,” Kleopfer points out. “There is some evidence that they were rather abundant in particular areas, and they’ve completely disappeared from those streams. Almost 75 or 80 percent of the population, range-wide, has shown significant decline.”
For more than a decade, conservation experts from federal, state and grassroots organizations have been partnering in several Blue Ridge states to identify and monitor hellbender populations. “But it wasn’t until about four or five years ago that we really had the opportunity to take this to a whole new level,” says Kleopfer. “They became more and more on the radar of federal listing under the Endangered Species Act, and we really wanted to prevent that from happening.”
In Virginia, where the hellbender is designated a Federal Species of Concern, the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries is working with researchers from Virginia Tech and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute to sample streams for hellbender DNA and introduce natural-looking, concrete nest boxes that encourage the amphibians to mate and lay eggs. “The male sits in there, tries to draw in a female, and the rest is letting Mother Nature take its course,” Kleopfer says. In one watershed in southwest Virginia that has been greatly impacted by farming and mining—Kleopfer is reticent to reveal exact sites so as to deter poachers—the scientific team recently videotaped the animals in the process of breeding, something he says has “never been seen before in the wild.”
Programs to raise hellbenders in captivity haven’t been as effective, Kleopfer says. “When you’re at a point where you’re ‘head-starting’ and releasing animals, you are pretty far down the rabbit hole as far as conservation, because those are usually last-ditch efforts to try to recover an animal. And if you don’t have a clean canvas, if you have not addressed the issue of why the animals disappeared—persecution, or a habitat health issue—you’re just putting animals out there that are gonna die anyway because you haven’t gotten rid of the root cause of why they disappeared.”
As part of the restoration effort, Kleopfer and his colleagues are working to educate Appalachian residents. “We’re really doing a lot of outreach to get people to become stewards of this animal, to become local advocates,” he says. “And we’ve had a lot of success with that, with school groups and support from the locals.
“We have reason to believe that we are going to be making a difference in the recovery of the species,” he adds. “It’s a big task, but it’s worth undertaking.”
HOW TO HELP HELLBENDERS
• Don’t kill a hellbender if you accidentally catch one while fishing; return it to the water. Contrary to popular belief, the oversized salamanders are not poisonous and will not bite.
• Leave natural rocks in streambeds alone. Disturbing them impacts the animals’ nesting spots.
• Don’t pollute. “We want folks to tread lightly on our streams,” says J.D. Kleopfer, a herpetologist at the Virginia Dept. of Game and Inland Fisheries. “Every little bit helps.”