North Georgia Project Aimed at Conserving Continent's Largest Salamander

September 2011: Grampus. Lasagna lizard. Mud devil. Snot otter.

Hellbenders may have more unflattering nicknames than a cross-county football rival, but these big salamanders with the jelly-slick skin are attracting some positive, and needed, conservation attention.

The Georgia Department of Natural Resources began a long-term monitoring and survey effort focused on eastern hellbenders this year. Researchers hope to learn more about hellbender population trends, find new hellbender sites, and monitor those and known populations to evaluate abundance and track changes in Georgia, according to project leader Thomas Floyd.

“One of the healthiest populations in North America is in the North Georgia mountains,” said Floyd, a wildlife biologist with the DNR Wildlife Resources Division’s Nongame Conservation Section. “…It’s really important for us to get baseline data so we know in the future how this salamander is doing.”

Hellbenders are North America’s largest salamander, growing longer than 2 feet. They live in cool, clear streams from New York to North Georgia and as far west as Missouri.

Yet both hellbender subspecies—eastern and Ozark—have experienced widespread declines, largely because of declines in 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 for ambushing prey.

The Ozark subspecies is a candidate for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act, and the eastern subspecies is being reviewed for listing. In Georgia, hellbenders are already state-listed as threatened and no longer found in at least eight streams they once inhabited. Eastern hellbenders also are a high-priority species in the State Wildlife Action Plan, the comprehensive strategy that guides DNR efforts to conserve biological diversity.

Last month, Floyd led a small crew on the last survey of the monitoring season, which ends when hellbenders begin nesting. Searchers ran their hands into gaps under large rocks in a Chattahoochee National Forest stream. They lifted some rocks and worked the suddenly turbid water underneath with nets. Floyd snorkeled deeper runs, trying to spot the almost-formless amphibians whose mottled brown and gray coloration blends with the streambed.

The group caught three hellbenders. Each was weighed, measured, swabbed to check for amphibian diseases, sampled for DNA and tagged with a Passive Integrated Transponder, or PIT, for future identification.

For the 2011 sampling season, Thomas and others surveyed stream stretches in the Toccoa, Nottely, Cartecay and Upper Little Tennessee River drainages. They documented hellbenders in part of the Nottely that had not been sampled. But none were found in the Cartecay and Upper Little Tennessee, reaches where the large salamanders had been recorded before.

The information and insights will build on a 2005 Georgia survey and research in other states.

It will also help ensure the future of a seldom-seen salamander with a list of hard-to-forget nicknames.

Help conserve rare, endangered and other nongame wildlife in Georgia. Buy or renew a bald eagle or hummingbird license plate, contribute to the Wildlife Conservation Fund state income tax checkoff or donate directly to the fund. All support the DNR Nongame Conservation Section, which receives no state general funds for its mission to conserve wildlife not legally hunted, fished for or trapped, as well as Georgia’s rare plants and natural habitats in the state.

Hellbenders Are...

  • Fully aquatic salamanders, spending their entire lives in streams and rivers.
  • Found in at least 20 Georgia trout streams. DNR will sample sites every three years.
  • Kin to Chinese and Japanese giant salamanders, which can top 100 pounds and 6 feet in length.
  • Equipped with internal gills, yet breathing almost exclusively through their skin.
  • Usually docile when handled. But they can bite and their skin secretions make them difficult to handle.
  • Death on crayfish, which make up most of their diet. They also eat small fish, snails, frogs, snakes, small mammals, and hellbender eggs and larvae.
  • Long-lived. One reached 29 years in captivity.
  • Threatened also by stream impoundment and pollution from agricultural and industrial runoff.

Grampus. Lasagna lizard. Mud devil. Snot otter. Hellbenders may have more unflattering nicknames than a cross-county football rival, but these big salamanders with the jelly-slick skin are attracting some positive, and needed, conservation attention.