State biologists seek sightings of hellbender salamanders in High Country waters

State biologists seek sightings of hellbender salamanders in High Country waters

10:41pm Apr 10, 2022
Image of a hellbender by Lori WIlliams courtesy of the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.

The waterways of the Appalachian mountains including the High Country are home to North America’s largest aquatic salamanders. But few are ever seen in the wild. 

Hellbenders — also known as snot otters — are elusive creatures that blend in with the rocks of quick-moving streams. And when people are lucky enough to catch a glimpse of them state wildlife scientists want to know.

For more than 10 years, they’ve been asking people to report sightings of hellbenders, and the effort is helping biologists understand them better. 2020 was a record year with almost 250 reported sightings.

Wildlife diversity biologist Lori Williams says the salamanders are an important bioindicator of how healthy the waterways are. That’s because small changes in water quality can have an impact on their numbers.

“Where hellbenders are doing well, the populations are doing well, then that tells us that’s a really healthy river system,” she says. “It’s got clean water, lots of oxygen, cooler temperatures. It’s good for the trout, it’s good for all the other animals that live in that system. And ultimately that’s good for people.”

Fully grown hellbenders average almost a foot and a half in length. Williams says there’s a myth that the giant salamanders are a threat to the area’s trout population. She says they are primarily bottom feeders and despite their size aren’t equipped to catch large fish.

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