Last week, I took a week off from work to volunteer with NC State Parks to help with hellbender surveys in the New River in Ashe County. Hellbenders are large salamanders that live under rocks in clean, swift-moving rivers in Eastern North America. Their brown, black and green marbled patterned backs blend in perfectly with their underwater surroundings. They can reach as long as 29 inches and can weigh up to 5 pounds.
This is the second year I have gone on this adventure and it was just as exciting the second time around. Over the course of the week, we found 23 hellbenders and 2 mudpuppies. On Thursday, we found what may be the largest hellbender ever caught in North Carolina. We visited various courses of the south fork of the New River, and some were shallow and slow flowing and other areas were deep and fast moving. Last year we did not have any storms or rain, but this year was a different case. Monday we were able to work all day, but Tuesday saw a large storm come up around 3:30pm. Lightning struck nearby and all we had to all get out of the water.
Wednesday we were helping a graduate student at Appalachian State University compare night-time surveys with day-time surveys. We surveyed transects of the river which were marked off with orange flagging. That day we worked through lunch so that we could get this done before the storms came. We stopped around 2pm that day as black ominous clouds settled in above the river valley.
So what does a hellbender survey entail? There are several jobs associated with this activity, and for most of the time this year I helped with the seine net. This is set up behind large rocks, which other people who are lifters will raise up with peaveys and cant hooks. Still others will don goggles and gloves and search under those rocks, feeling around for the critters. The seine is there to catch any hellbender that might escape. Those who lift the rock and those who dive have to be very careful, and the lifters yell “set” when they have the rock stable, and then the divers will yell “clear” when they are done searching.
When a hellbender is caught, a runner takes the animal, keeping it in a small bag and holding it in the water as they carry him to the data boat. This canoe houses a PVC pipe cut in two where the animal is submerged in water and measurements are taken. First we weight the creature in the bag and then weigh the bag to get the weight of the animal. Then we measure his length and look for any parasites, injuries, or abnormalities. We determine if the animal is male or female, then check it with a device to see if it is one we’ve captured and tagged before. If not, then we’ll insert a pit tag and write down the number associated with it.
This whole process is done as quickly as possible, keeping the animal shaded with cloths and wet the entire time. One of the team members has identified the rock where the animal was found with a buoy affixed to a brick, and the runner will carry the hellbender back to that rock and let it go where the entry hole is and the critter will slide back under to his safe spot.
These ancient creatures have been around since the time of dinosaurs, but some estimate that their population may have decreased by as much as half. Like other salamanders, they breathe through their skin and are heavily impacted by pollution of our rivers and waterways. The New River is on the borderline of being cold enough for them to exist anyway, as they need really cool and clean water. The eastern hellbender is a species of special concern, and a subspecies called the Ozark hellbender found in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas is federally listed as endangered.
Although some locals consider them a bad omen, their presence is really a great indicator of good water quality. Much of the New River is designated as National Wild and Scenic River, as well as being an outstanding resource water, which is the highest water quality designation the state of NC gives waterways. New River State Park has acquired a number of tracts along the river and works with local land conservancies to acquire additional parcels when they become available. Continuing to protect this important stretch of river is good not just for the hellbenders, but for all the critters that use this resource, and good for the people who rely upon it as well.
The last day we went back and finished up a couple stretches we weren’t able to complete due to storms and other factors, and we caught two more hellbenders before 1pm that day. The last one we caught escaped from those who were searching for him under his rock, and it took about 10 minutes for someone else to come up with him. They usually stick pretty close to their rock even when disturbed, so it is rare for one to get away from us entirely.
I enjoyed my week of hellbender searching and hope to go back again next year. Learning more about this species is one of the best ways to hope to keep them around for future generations to enjoy spotting them as well. Most of these creatures go their whole lives without ever being seen by humans, so if you do find a hellbender while kayaking or fishing, consider yourself fortunate and leave them in their aquatic home. They are a unique critter and an important part of the riverine ecosystem.