TO HELL AND BACK – IN A SLIMY SORT OF WAY
This week we leave the world of mammals, birds and other cute and cuddly creatures, and enter the creepy and somewhat slippery world of amphibians. We will also stay close to home (Northeastern U.S.), with an amphibian that has an unusual name and is considered endangered by the U.S. Government. It wasn’t until 2005, that a decline in the populations of this extraordinary amphibian was noticed.
Meet the Hellbender!
There are two varieties of Hellbender, the Eastern Hellbender and the Ozark Hellbender. The Ozark variety has been labeled as endangered and the Eastern Hellbender is considered a species of concern. Hellbenders range from New York State into Arkansas. They live in clear and cold, swiftly running streams, and are judged to be a barometer for the health of a stream’s ecosystem.
They can grow to a length of twenty-four inches long and are the largest salamander in North America. The largest salamander in the world is the Chinese salamander, which is critically endangered (see below image).
When I was younger, I loved walking through the woods, turning over rocks alongside a stream looking for salamanders. The ones I saw were never more than a couple of inches long. I’m sure I would have been shocked if I found this creature. My search would have stopped then and there. The Hellbender looks similar to a rock and has ‘fins’ running along its sides. Those fins increase its body surface. The increased body surface is the Hellbender’s way of drawing in oxygen. That’s really important because the Hellbender breathes through its skin.
The tiger salamander, pictured on the extreme left in the below image, is a sample of the type of salamander that I used to pick up on my way home from school. It was a far cry from the appearance and size of the Hellbender, which is pictured in the middle.
Image credit: National Geographic
Salamanders, generally speaking, are very dependent on a clean ecosystem. This is why they are in danger. The polluting of habitats in which the Hellbender can survive is a cause for concern not just for the salamanders, but also for humans. Again, we find that we have created a problem, not just for life around us, but also for ourselves. Pollution is everyone’s problem, especially polluted water systems.
“’Imagine if you're in a river, and you're dragging your lungs around behind you—things are not going to go well if that river is polluted or muddy or murky,’ said Kim a conservation biologist with the Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington, D.C., who studies hellbender immune systems.”(National Geographic)
Photo credit: Rebecca Jacobson
Continued surveys and monitoring of existing populations will be necessary to ensure the survival of this species of salamander. Education is important as well. Fishermen need to understand that this amphibian in no threat to other fish, and are not poisonous as some may have thought them to be.
To learn more about the Hellbender, visit any one or all of the following sites:
Also, the following two videos, produced by Virginia Tech, show the Hellbender in its own environment and contain a great deal of interesting information.
The Hellbender thanks you for stopping by. Do stop by again next week for a look at another very unusual animal.
Jeanne E. Rogers
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