Protecting and Celebrating our Uniquely Southern Wildlife Species and Habitats
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Famed author Barbara Kingsolver once said that “the state flag of Appalachia should be a salamander,” no doubt an homage to the amazing salamander diversity of the southern Appalachians. Perhaps no salamander better represents the Appalachians than the mysterious Eastern Hellbender. Depending on where you are from, you may know the hellbender as grampus, devil dog, mud-devil, Allegheny alligator, water dog, or my personal favorite, the snot otter. No matter what you call them, chances are that you have rarely encountered them despite being the largest salamander in North America (reaching lengths of over 2 ft!), if you have been lucky enough to see one in the wild at all. This is partly due to their secretive nature, but unfortunately it is increasingly due to the fact that hellbenders are quietly slipping away, declining at an alarming rate.
For the past three years, Wild South has been working with Warren Wilson College to help the Eastern Hellbender population grow and thrive in North Carolina and beyond. We are employing a variety of conservation actions, from artificial habitat to innovative monitoring techniques and genetic analysis.
The hellbender requires clear and cool mountain streams to thrive, as they are particularly vulnerable to water pollution due to their permeable skin. Siltation from anthropogenic activities can also be particularly detrimental for hellbenders due to their unique reproductive habits. During breeding season, males become “den masters” guarding eggs in cavities under large flat rocks. Siltation can quickly fill these dens, suffocate eggs, and eliminate the interstitial spaces juvenile snot otters need to avoid predators. Of course, this combination inevitably leads to a decrease in the local hellbender population.
Wild South and Warren Wilson College have deployed a unique way to help the hellbenders thrive despite disturbance of the western North Carolina watersheds. We have been building and testing “hellbender nest huts,” a man-made habitat that provides a den for the male and helps avoid eggs being enveloped by siltation. This may sounds like a strange concept, but it is really no different than bluebird or duck boxes, these just happen to be for a 2ft long bachelor hellbender. We have even developed an innovative new model, engineered especially for the fast flowing streams of the southern Appalachians.
In 2013, the first model of the huts was designed and 72 huts were placed in the hellbender habitat of western North Carolina. The huts were monitored for success and the design improved based on the results.
This spring and summer, Wild South and Warren Wilson College students will be in the field placing the newly improved huts in hellbender habitat in western North Carolina. Thanks to this innovative program, Wild South and Warren Wilson College students will be helping the hellbender once again thrive in its native habitat.
Wild South works across the South with boots-on-the-ground to protect and steward wildlife populations and habitats.