The Great Smoky Mountains have been dubbed “The Salamander Capital of the World” for good reason. The range hosts dozens of species of salamanders, several of which are endemic, with representatives from five different families. Some notable examples are the red-cheeked salamander (Plethodon jordani), its look-alike, the imitator salamander (Desmognathus imitator), and the common mudpuppy (Necturus maculosus), a fully aquatic, paedomorphic salamander that can grow upwards of a foot long and has large external gills. However, one species stands out among all others and has earned a special place in my heart.
The eastern hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis) is the largest salamander in North America and the third largest in the world. With some individuals reaching 30 inches in length, the hellbender has earned many fitting nicknames: Allegheny alligator, devil dog, and my obvious favorite, snot otter. Much like the mudpuppy, this salamander is fully aquatic and is paedomorphic, meaning it retains juvenile characteristics in adulthood. Specifically, the hellbender exhibits neoteny, where development is delayed. Paedomorphosis arose as the result of heterochrony, which is the mechanism by which species change the timing of initiation as well as the rate of developmental processes, allowing species to achieve different sizes and forms over time. A good way to describe heterochrony is “the evolution of ontogeny,” a definition given by Dr. Michael McKinney, a man I’ve been lucky enough to work under.
When observing hellbenders, we find them invariably underneath large, flat rocks in fast flowing water. They are highly specialized ambush predators that require clean, well-oxygenated water to thrive. They’re exclusively carnivorous, feeding on crawfish, snails, and small fish. They are very difficult to find from above the water because their coloring allows them to blend in perfectly with rocks and gravel. The most efficient way to locate them is to reach under rocks and feel for their slimy skin- and boy is it slimy. They are also very streamlined, so trying to pick one up takes immense skill.
While not everybody agrees with me, understandably, I think hellbenders are beautiful creatures. I would like nothing more than to see these giants among caudatans thrive. Many populations remain robust, but some have seen declines due to pollution of their mountain streams. This is a tale similar to many other organisms as well unfortunately, but it really makes me appreciate what great national parks our country has. There are also many groups dedicated to the conservation of species at risk to whom I also owe my thanks. Amphibians are notoriously susceptible to being harmed by ecosystem alteration due to their strict moisture, pH, and nutrient requirements, especially ones as specialized as the hellbender. There isn’t an easy solution to preserving all natural habitats, but I think it’s important to understand how lucky we are to have such an amazing diversity of life. Long-winded sappy speech over, here are some pictures.
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