It’s No Looker

But Virginians should be proud to call the eastern Hellbender their own 

Illustration by Robert Meganck

No doubt the life of an associate professor of wildlife conservation has its plentiful challenges. But for William Hopkins in the department of fish and wildlife conservation at Virginia Tech, there is this undeniable upside: While all of us were melting away in the withering 100-plus-degree temperatures this summer, William Hopkins’ job required—required!—him to go snorkeling in cold-water mountain streams. What called him to these refreshing waters was the Eastern hellbender, the largest aquatic salamander in the Americas and a Virginia native.

With a lifespan that can stretch longer than 40 years in the wild, hellbenders can reach a length of more than two feet. Their habitat is cold mountain streams within a fairly narrow range that roughly matches to the stretch of the Appalachian Mountains from New York to Georgia. Hopkins, along with a research team of graduate students, is trying to learn more about the hellbender’s health, habits and population in Virginia.

How the salamander got the “hellbender” name isn’t clear, and Hopkins has heard it called by other colloquial names as well, including “grumpus,” “mountain gator” and “water dog.” But the story he’s heard more than once is that “any animal that looks like that must be bent for hell.”

And indeed, you wouldn’t call a hellbender a real looker. With their flat heads, smallish legs, and mottled, muddy-colored bodies, they may not be among the flashiest of salamanders, but they do blend in perfectly with the rocky stream-bottoms where they make their homes.

The hellbender makes use of those rocks when it comes time for reproducing. The male excavates a shallow impression under a large, flat rock, attracting females to his humble abode. Once the eggs have been laid, however, he runs her off, then remains all on his own to watch over his brood until it hatches. “There is some evidence the males stay and guard the larvae, too,” says Hopkins.

Hellbenders are fully aquatic salamanders, so they breathe through their skin, but they also have working lungs and can breathe air. Why they have retained lungs is one of the mysteries about hellbenders that scientists like Hopkins are trying to answer.

There are other questions yet to be answered as well. From a clutch size of probably several hundred eggs, how many successfully hatch? What do the young hellbenders eat, and what kind of environment do they need to survive? And how robust is the existing population of hellbenders? This last question is of particular concern, because it is known that populations have seen significant decline across their range. “Their abundance was once much, much greater,” says Hopkins. “I talk to locals who say that they used to sit on bridges and be able to watch the hellbenders swimming around, and they tell me now they haven’t seen them in years.”  

In fact, the Eastern hellbender is being assessed to determine if it should be federally listed as an endangered species. Because they are such long-lived creatures, they do not reach breeding age for seven or eight years, and anything that might adversely affect the early life stages reduces the adult breeding population. Habitat destruction and pollution are the most significant threats to the hellbender.  

Hellbenders pose no danger to humans. The mainstay of their diet is crayfish, so they don’t affect fish populations. And they are key indicators of water quality; a stream that supports a thriving hellbender population is a healthy stream where trout and other aquatic life will thrive as well. “Virginia is one of the last strongholds of this species,” says Hopkins. “This is an animal we should be really proud of as a natural resource.”

Hopkins’ research is already paying off in new discoveries about this still-enigmatic native. Early in the fall, he and his team took to the New River and almost immediately found hellbenders, apparently quite happily making their homes there, under large boulders, in water a good 12 to 15 degrees warmer than the cold streams it was presumed they preferred.

“We went out and started finding them our first day,” says Hopkins, which would suggest that hellbenders aren’t rare in the New River.

How else might the hellbender surprise us? Hopkins is hoping to find out. “I’m very fond of these animals,” he says. “They’re fascinating. And as far as names go? They’re hard to forget.”

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