VIEW ON NATURE:
Holy Allegheny Alligators!
By: Stephen Wendt
Virginia is home to the largest salamander in the U.S—the Eastern Hellbender. Think LARGE, with some growing up to 29 inches long and living past 25 years! No one knows how it got that wild name; many assume it’s due to its strange appearance, whereas Appalachian legend has pioneer settlers naming it as a creature from hell where it’s bent on returning. In Virginia, they reside in the southwestern part of the state where locals may refer to them as “devil dogs” and “Allegheny alligators”.
This stout, chocolate to rust-brown amphibian has a wide, flat body, neck and head, tiny eyes, and slimy skin. Their tails are set to provide powerful propulsion in fast moving waters. This large amphibian is found on the bottoms of clear, moderate to swift-moving, silt-free, well-oxygenated mountain streams. They hunt at night for crayfish, hellgrammites, and small fish while spending their days under streambed rocks. They have a very good sense of smell, trailing scent molecules upstream to their prey, and are believed to detect fish vibrations.
Hellbenders are coated in slim to help protect them from infections, parasites, abrasion and predators. When threatened, they excrete more of this mucous, rendering them bad tasting to many predators.
Mating occurs in late summer. The male excavates a nest depression under a large rock or log, with the entrance positioned out of the direct current to facilitate egg laying and fertilization. The male waits until the female’s arrival and steers her into the nest. Females lay between 150 to 400 eggs connected by “cords”. Subsequently, the male entices other females to enter the same nest to lay more eggs. He eventually shoos each mother away and guards the nest as he swishes water to increase oxygen levels for the embryos for up to 75 days. Talk about a caring father!
Hatchling hellbenders are one inch long, attached to a yolk sac for energy for the first few months of life, and lack functional limbs. Hellbenders are unusual in that they breathe during their first year with external gills which upon resorption are replaced by breathing predominantly across their wavy side skin folds and frills.
Hellbenders are keenly adapted to rocky, fast-flowing streams. Their flattened shape and slick skin allows them to slip their way upstream and crawl into the narrowest crevices. Despite their limited eyesight, they have a spectacular self-defense mechanism--light-sensitive cells all over their bodies. These cells tell hellbenders when their tails or other parts of their bodies are exposed outside of shadows to the light, where they are more visible and vulnerable to their many predators. So without even looking, they can instantly know if they are completely concealed or not under the rock.
Due to their need for pristine waters, hellbender numbers have dwindled as scientists at Virginia Tech and elsewhere feverishly study and practice ways to stabilize their populations. Hellbenders are a highly unique, one-of-a-kind species that I hope all agencies and people will be hell-bent on preserving for future generations.
State Special Concern & Federal Species of Concern
The eastern hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis alleganiensis) is one of Virginia’s largest salamanders and can be found only in the western part of Virginia. They inhabit clear, fast flowing streams with many large, flat rocks that are used for cover. Hellbenders are nocturnal, foraging for food at night and using suction to consume their prey. The preferred food of hellbenders is crayfish, but they also consume snails, worms, and occasionally fish.
Mating occurs in the late summer. Male hellbenders are territorial and will fight over prime nest rocks, guarding rocks before the females arrive. When the females arrive, they lay up to 500 ping-pong ball sized eggs underneath rocks. After the male externally fertilizes the eggs, the female is then forced out of the nest. Males guard the nest until the eggs hatch two months later! Larval hellbenders are less than one inch long at hatching. Because they are so small, scientists do not know much about the larvae.
Hellbenders are listed as a Federal Species of Concern. There are many factors affecting hellbender populations, including stream siltation, damming of rivers, collecting, and pollution. These factors affect the quality of the water, to which hellbenders are very sensitive. Changes in temperature, oxygen, flow rate, and sediment build up can alter the habitat enough to make it unfavorable to support hellbender populations.
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