By DAVID RAINER
Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
When the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division announced recently that one of the Nongame Section’s programs had discovered a hellbender, I admit I was a bit puzzled about why there was so much buzz about a vintage fishing lure.
“I’ve still got some Hellbender fishing lures,” said Mark Sasser, head of WFF’s Nongame Section. “I remember when I was in college, which was a long time ago, there was a 12-pound bass mounted in one of the displays at Auburn that said it was caught on a Hellbender lure in Lake Martin in the ’60s.”
This recent discovery of another kind of hellbender, however, had nothing to do with fishing lures. Turns out there’s an odd-looking critter in the salamander family that inhabits rocky streams throughout the Eastern U.S., with northern Alabama and northeastern Mississippi at the southern end of the range.
What’s important about the discovery of the hellbender recently is that WFF officials thought the oversized salamander had disappeared from Alabama waters. Plus, the presence of hellbenders is an indicator of the water quality in these streams.
“Hellbenders were fairly common in north Alabama at one time, but with habitat degradation, we thought they were extirpated in the state,” Sasser said. “They have always been pretty much located along the Tennessee River drainages. They like large, clear streams with rock bottoms.”
Sasser said the main threat to hellbenders and other amphibians is the alteration of riparian zones and streams. A lot of the streams become silted in from logging operations, agriculture, mining and urban sprawl. Stream channelization, which was detrimental to the hellbender, thankfully has been curtailed, but activities like clear-cutting tracts of timber adjacent to riparian areas and cattle wading in streams increase sediments in the water and negatively impact certain amphibians.
“Not a lot of work has been done on hellbenders,” Sasser said. “The presence of hellbenders is basically an indicator of your water quality, a lot like the mussels we’re studying. If they don’t exist, then there’s a reason. And it’s not a good reason.
“We’ve never conducted a lo
WFF provided research money through its Endangered Species allocation, which provides funds to study rare species in Alabama, for Auburn University to begin a quest to find hellbenders in the state.
The research was headed by James (Jim) Godwin of the University Museum of Natural History at Auburn. Godwin brought in collaborator Lesley de Souza to perform DNA studies in those streams to try to detect the presence of hellbenders.
“Back in the ’60s and ’70s, people weren’t looking intensively for hellbenders, but they could be found in relatively good numbers,” Godwin said. “We have records that people would go out in a day or less and find five or six of them. After the ’70s, there was not that much interest in the hellbender. Reports would pop up here and there from the ’70s on.”
Although fishermen would occasionally snag one of the huge salamanders, the hellbender basically disappeared from the conservation conversation until the turn of the century.
“In the late ’90s and early 2000s, there was a little more interest in finding hellbenders in the state, but no one was finding any,” Godwin said. “There was the thought that maybe they were gone, extirpated. Then, every once in a while, someone would report one. Fisheries biologists in Elk River caught one in 1997. Then someone on the upper Flint River caught one in 1999 and took photos of it.
“Then in March of 2014, a fisheries biologist encountered a hellbender in Cypress Creek, and he photographed it. That created more interest in doing more research work on the animal.”
Godwin and crew started searching for the slimy salamanders in the usual Tennessee River drainages and were coming up empty. Godwin said what is known about the hellbender is it feeds on crayfish, other salamanders in streams, small fish and large insect larvae. They live on the bottoms in runs in streams where there is good flow, under large rocks with gravelly substrates.
Thomas Floyd of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources was lending an expert hand when the crew floated around a bend in Flint River. Floyd spotted a likely hellbender hangout, turned over a big rock and there it was.
“It’s important that we study the hellbender because it is believed that the decline in numbers is because of degraded water quality in these streams. The presence of these animals, like the freshwater mussels, is an indication that our water quality has been restored.”
While hellbenders can reach 29 inches in length, the one captured by Godwin and crew measured 49 centimeters, a little more than 19 inches.
“It was a female but did not have any eggs,” Godwin said. “It may have already laid its eggs or simply didn’t produce any. Those are the questions that need to be answered. We’ve got another year of funding, so we’ll go to the streams we did not survey. We’ll survey those next year. We want to go back to the streams we worked this year and repeat those surveys.
Godwin said the survey includes collecting water samples for DNA analysis. Dr. de Souza will oversee the lab work on what is called environmental DNA. The collected water samples are filtered and then the DNA is extracted.
“It’s being done in other places on the hellbender,” he said. “The important thing that has come out of that is the environmental DNA work often indicates the presence of hellbenders in streams when we’ve not been able to find them by looking under rocks.
“We will be analyzing those samples later this year, and what we hope is we will detect hellbenders in some of these streams where we actually didn’t catch any.”
PHOTOS: (Jim Godwin) The Eastern hellbender can reach up to 29 inches in length, although the one captured earlier this year in north Alabama measured just over 19 inches. It was a female but did not have any eggs. Jim Godwin of Auburn lends perspective to the size of the large salamander.