(WJHL) – Virginia is home to North America’s largest salamander: the Eastern Hellbender. However, the massive amphibians can only be found in the Southwest region of Virginia, and their local legacy is one that wildlife officials say should be protected.
On average, the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR) reports hellbenders grow to between 11.5 and 20 inches and are capable of living beyond 30 years in captivity.
State Herpetologist J.D. Kleopfer with DWR said the primary reason the hellbenders are only found in Southwest Virginia versus the rest of the state is forest buffers around their waterways.
Hellbenders require cold, clean water, the likes of which are found in Southwest Virginia’s higher-elevation counties in Appalachia. The Holston and Clinch River basins provide an ideal home for the species, Kleopfer said.
Further north and east into Virginia, more land is developed and there are fewer buffers around the waterways, leading to lower oxygen levels and a less ideal environment.
According to Kleopfer, hellbenders are not currently facing a threatened status, but their populations are monitored and conservation efforts are underway.
“There’s no state or federal listing on them right now,” Kleopfer said. “We’ve done a ton of work to avoid that scenario, particularly with Virginia Tech and Bill Hopkins’s lab.”
The species’ primary challenges include disappearing forested buffers, “persecution” and irresponsible actions of people in their waters.
“The real issue is stream buffers,” Kleopfer said. “We need more stream buffers, more forested buffers throughout their lands. That would probably bring back a lot of their populace.”
Hellbenders are believed to have lived in Southwest Virginia for millions of years, with their fossils dating back 70 million years at least. In fact, Kleopfer said the closest relatives to the salamanders live on the other side of the planet – the Japanese and Chinese giant salamanders. Their relation leads researchers to believe that hellbenders made their way into North America by way of a prehistoric land bridge between Asia and North America.
In all that time, folklore has sprung up around hellbenders in Appalachia. Some of those stories have led to a negative perception of the amphibians, such as misguided beliefs that they are poisonous or are a danger to trout fisheries.
“There’s still folks that believe they have an impact on trout fisheries, so they kill them whenever they accidentally catch them on hook and line,” Kleopfer said. “They don’t have any real impact on any kind of fisheries.”
While Kleopfer said a hellbender, an ambush predator, may occasionally eat a small enough trout that wanders by, the DWR has seen no evidence that hellbenders have any negative impact on trout fisheries. They primarily feed on crayfish, which are a much more manageable prey.
Poaching and illegal pet trade also pose a risk to the salamanders. The unique features of the animals have made them desirable to some, and Kleopfer said they have been taken and sold illegally to buyers overseas.
Video: A female hellbender salamander searches for a suitable nesting site. (J.D. Kleopfer/DWR)
While shrinking habitat and poaching may seem like challenges native Southwest Virginians can’t address, there is one simple thing Kleopfer said can be done to make life easier for the hellbenders.
“Folks get into streams, and they start moving rocks around and start disturbing streams, building carns and stuff like that, building rock pools,” he said. “And we’ve actually seen hellbenders accidentally killed when people are moving these big rocks.”
The hellbender nesting season begins in late August and early September, with males guarding over a nest that may contain eggs from multiple females. The males externally fertilize then guard the eggs until mid-April, and a nest can contain hundreds of eggs under a rock.
If those rocks and nests are moved, all of those eggs can be swept away and adult hellbenders can even be crushed.
“We highly discourage people from going out there and actively start flipping rocks and trying to catch them cause you are damaging their nesting areas and their habitat,” Kleopfer said. “Once you lift that rock up, dislodge it from the sediment and how it’s embedded in there, it takes a while for that to return to its original condition.”
As part of the efforts to protect and aid the salamanders, the DWR and Virginia Tech have been active, creating and installing nest boxes. The concrete structures weigh roughly 80 pounds and are set into waterways where the hellbenders live. A tube leads to a nesting chamber where the females can safely deposit the eggs and the males can watch over them.
“Our nest boxes have proven to be exceptionally successful,” Kleopfer said. “In particular areas, we can have 70% occupancy and find hellbenders year-round.
The boxes are checked by researchers, who use them to get an idea of the populations and even count the eggs and run blood tests on the “den masters.”
“It’s a much easier, more efficient way to study the populations,” Kleopfer said.
Kleopfer described the hellbenders as a unique character of Southwest Virginia and urged natives to try and look out for the amphibians that are part of the region’s culture.
“It’s our responsibility to conserve wildlife for future generations, so it’s definitely a legacy issue. These animals are the proverbial ‘canary in the coal mine’ as far as water quality indicators.”
According to Kleopfer, Southwest Virginia is one of the most biologically diverse aquatic systems in the country, made even more apparent by the hellbenders’ presence.
“It’s an amazing resource in general, and it’s our responsibility to make sure we pass on that legacy to future generations.”
For anglers who accidentally hook a hellbender while fishing, the DWR asks that they try to safely remove the hook without causing much harm. If that is not possible, Kleopfer said it’s best to just cut the line and let them swim away.
Wildlife enthusiasts who hope to see a hellbender are encouraged to wander waterways carefully and be vigilant for a chance encounter. Kleopfer asked that they refrain from flipping rocks and disturbing their habitat, saying it’s best to just keep a watchful eye out for the continent’s largest salamanders.
“They are part of the culture of that region,” Kleopfer told News Channel 11. “And it would be a shame to lose part of that natural heritage of Southwest Virginia.”