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Sizzlin Feature

Amphibian Assault

Our Correspondent Finds the Rare, Elusive Hellbender Salamander to be, um, Rare and Elusive

John Ellsberry

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By Michael Anft | Posted 5/24/2000

Many of Maryland's troubled species carry along their own cachet--a certain ecological je ne sais quois--a built-in tug at the stewardship-of-the-environment heartstrings; a certain, for lack of a better term, sexiness that induces a near-obsessive concern for their well-being. Often, of course, that concern represents little more than enlightened human self-interest. The rockfish starts to disappear, so the state sets fishing limits so a whole industry won't be wiped out. The plight of the oriole, the victim of a disappearing habitat, inspires anxiety because of its provincial symbolism. God forbid any reports showing a decline in the number of tasty blue crabs, lest Marylanders start slitting their wrists.

But what of the bottom feeders--the unattractive, slimy, and often unseen contributors to the state's unique fauna? Specifically, what of the hellbender salamander, Western Maryland's reclusive zoological star, the Garbo to the state's Ethel Merman, the black bear? Long revered in tales among naturalists for its cunning survival skills and its status as the largest salamander in North America (as long as 29 inches), the hellbender hardly ranks as an "awwww"-inspiring animal. The brown and slippery amphibian has reportedly caused an unsuspecting fisherman or two to gasp after finding it on the end of the line, and provoked fearful reprisals simply by nature of its homeliness. "People think [the hellbender is] ugly and maybe poisonous--which it isn't," says Dan Feller, one of two state naturalists investigating the health of the hellbender. "We've found them smashed by rocks on the banks."

As its name implies, the hellbender comes from somewhere deep below the Appalachians. Buried beneath fast-flowing cold-water streams with clean bottoms, the salamander quietly bides its time under rocks by day, then comes out at night to feed on crayfish, worms, and other aquatic morsels. Located in the Casselman and the Youghiogheny--the only two state rivers to flow northward to the Ohio River system, and hence away from the Chesapeake Bay watershed and the attendant save-the-bay enviro consciousness--the hellbender has nonetheless made a name for itself by its very aloofness. Feller reports that he and his boss at the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) benefit from the help of curious volunteers in gathering data for the agency's Hellbender Population Study.

"The hellbender's such a fantastic animal that we actually have a waiting list," Feller says. "A lot of our volunteers even come from other states."

Not wanting to be left out of such as adventure, my associate, Shawn, and I loaded up our wagon and headed 200 miles west to Garrett County for a chance at hellbender-viewing glory. Shawn's participation seemed natural enough. During a trip 11 years ago to the county seat of Oakland (to meet the son of the Ouija board's purported inventor), Shawn had introduced me to the lore of the hellbender and its exalted status among herpetologists and garden-variety zoologists. More importantly, hellbender hunting requires at least two humans to make it work, and Shawn is able-bodied enough to lift heavy rocks.

After turning off of Route 40 west of Grantsville and passing the Casselman River Bridge (circa 1813), the country's first stone-arch span, we travel two miles along a dusty gravel road that meanders around and over the wide, shallow Casselman, amid farm fields that announce the rugged eke-it-out resourcefulness of the Amish families who own most of the riverside land. Feller has steered us toward this part of the river, about a mile south of the Mason-Dixon line, because it is a veritable hotbed of hellbender activity. ("Hotbed" means that on a good day in August he and his DNR partner might, after lifting hundreds of rocks with a lever-and-pincer device called a log peavey, find one critter.)

Because of its nocturnal habits and its shyness, the only way to expose a hellbender to the light of day (other than being an inadvertently "lucky" fisherman) is to mimic the DNR method--lift the rocks. Of course, it's spring, and the water's higher than in August (about three and a half feet), which makes any lurking salamanders harder to see. The DNR guys won't have anything to do with our quest. "We kind of think it would be a waste of our time," Feller says politely.

Undeterred, Shawn and I don hip waders (for the first time in our lives), arm ourselves with a net, a coal shovel, and a 4-foot stretch of metal pipe, and find the easiest way down the gently sloping banks to the water. As a common water snake eyes us from the bank, we start using the coal shovel to lift up large, flat pieces of sandstone that form most of the Casselman's bottom. We leave no stone unturned in our eco-tourists' quest for satisfaction.

In the process, we uncover a major obstacle: Sometimes, rocks are on top of rocks that are on tops of rocks. We can't really get to the bottom of things. And another one: The most likely suspects among the rocks are too large even for two almost-young men to pick up. In our first two hours under an overcast sky, we do discover some weird-looking insect larvae and a couple of crayfish. This we take, in a transparent effort to buoy our spirits, as a good sign--the crayfish is the hellbender's main source of sustenance.

But as the hours slip by with nary a sign of our amphibian of choice, another dilemma rears its head: As we flip rocks and temporarily muddy the waters, we're quite possibly doing what humans inevitably do when they enter other animals' domains--we're mucking things up, habitat-wise.

At such moments of realization and mounting guilt, it helps the neophyte hellbender hunter to recall the maligned critter's not-so-happy history. Whatever we may be doing to disturb the hellbender (and its Casselman cohabitants, for that matter), we're practically ecological saints compared to the animal's long list of human enemies.

Not surprisingly, the hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis, for you Latin freaks) predates the naked ape by tens of millions of years. Its close ancestors slipped about in the Pleistocene slime some 70 million to 90 million years ago, before the continents became continents, Feller says: "We know that it existed before the continents broke apart because there are similar species in Japan and China." The Chinese cryptobranchus grows up to 5 feet long and is frequently eaten by humans, he adds.

The ancient hellbenders left extensive evidence of their comings and goings. Fossil records show piles of hellbender skeletons in Pennsylvania that date back 10 million years. "They're a regular archaeological artifact from Indian sites along the Youghiogheny," Feller says. Given the huge volume of bones, most archaeologists believe the hellbender was a source of food, and Feller says descendants of northern Youghiogheny tribes report that the salamander may have been used in tribal rituals, Feller adds.

Records from the early 1900s show that some Euro-Americans also tried to eat the slimy things, overlooking the fact that the hellbender's skin--outfitted with extra folds that allow the animal to breathe through its body underwater--emits a bitter ooze. "One fellow thought they tasted quite good," Feller reports. "Another said they were bitter. Anyone trying to eat them would obviously have to skin them."

As white folks turned the Appalachian earth for crops and coal, the hellbender suffered. Mining along the Youghiogheny led to acids seeping into the river. Early in the century, it wasn't uncommon to find hundreds of hellbenders mixed in with fish washed ashore after an acid-induced kill. When the Youghiogheny was diverted in the early 1930s because of a fire in a "gob pile"--junk excavated from mines along with coal--more hellbenders bit the dust. Even today, many Yough and Casselman tributaries in Pennsylvania are considered "dead" because of mine runoff.

Although no one knows why, hellbender populations in the Susquehanna--the result of geological and glacial shifts millions of years ago that delivered the Western Maryland amphibian to the central Maryland waterway--have dwindled to the point where the river is no longer considered hellbender habitat. Although a state fisheries specialist claimed to have recently found hellbender larvae in a Susquehanna tributary, Cecil County's Rock Run, specimens haven't been recorded in the river's Harford County portion since 1966. "We've spent time in the Susquehanna, and on Deer Creek and Octoraro Creek [two Susquehanna tributaries] looking for them," Feller says. "We haven't found anything, and it doesn't look like the Susquehanna could support them. There are too few crayfish--we only saw two in one day--too much sediment, and the water's too warm."

Even would-be do-gooders have done the salamander wrong. A West Virginia University research group pulled untold numbers of hellbenders out of the Casselman as part of a project to find anti-cancer properties in animals, Feller says, adding that he's heard no reports indicating the salamander has any pharmacological use.

DNR started noting the hellbender's dwindling numbers in earnest in the 1980s. By 1997, when the state decided to fund the population study, "we had a pretty good idea there weren't many hellbenders left," Feller says. While the cold-blooded amphibian's range runs along the spine of the Appalachians from New York to Alabama (it also has a close cousin in the Ozarks), the species' health relies on local environmental factors. In some parts of Virginia, for example, small, tree-lined tributaries harbor an abundance of juvenile hellbenders. In certain creeks in Pennsylvania and West Virginia that run through national parks, the animal seems to be making a comeback.

Not so here. In three years of surveying that Feller terms "intensive," the Hellbender Population Study has uncovered only 23 hellbenders in the Casselman, almost all of them older, perhaps as old as 30. (Hellbenders have lived up to 55 years in captivity.) "That's what has us worried," Feller says. "They don't seem to be reproducing." Although DNR has found eggs in two places, Feller is concerned that conditions--silt from development in Grantsville, nutrients from cow dung in small tributaries on farmland, warm waters resulting from deforestation--are turning the Casselman into something less than a prime habitat for young salamanders. For survival purposes, the hellbender has less in common with land-based cousins (such as Garrett County's green salamander) than with freshwater fish and mussels; like those creatures, it needs cold, clear water, no silt, and no pollution. For Maryland's hellbenders to make it, forest buffers need to be planted to keep water cool, seepage from mines must be stopped, and development in Garrett County must be kept in check.

Despite the hellbender's unhappy history and endangered status, Feller does see one ray of hope: The Youghiogheny, once riddled with mine runoff, agricultural silt, and even sewage from Oakland, is in much better shape since the state began buying thousands of acres along it in 1988. If hellbenders are going to have a shot at surviving in Maryland, the Yough is apparently their best shot.

All of which is cold comfort to Shawn and I. We've moved north along the Casselman a mile or so into Pennsylvania, past a couple of Amish farms and what has to be the mid-Atlantic's most remote grocery store: Yoder's Bent-n-Dent, a small shack on a dirt road in the middle of the middle of nowhere. I'm tired of the Sisyphean task--rock after rock after rock--and Shawn has become much more fascinated with the acres of thin green hose that announce the maple-syrup industry so prevalent in the area. After another 30 minutes of rock-flipping, we throw in the towel. We can now say with objective certainty that the hellbender is indeed a rare, elusive, reclusive creature. Or perhaps a deliciously elaborate hoax--Western Maryland's answer to the snipe?--played on ridiculous city slickers who admire nature from a considerable environmental distance.

Delusionally entertaining this last notion, we stop by the Bent-n-Dent, where a straw-hatted Albert Yoder tells us hellbenders do indeed exist. Yoder, whose 300-acre farm straddles the Mason-Dixon line and takes up a good bit of the Casselman's western banks, recalls seeing one in a five-gallon bucket not too long ago. "The DNR guy that caught it said they were almost [extinct]," Yoder says. "It was an ugly thing. It was about yea big," he adds, making an "O" with his hands about the width of a little-leaguer's baseball bat, "and it had these eyes and these legs and this little skinny tail."

So, we ask him, are there any local legends or tales that further mythify this scary but harmless river-floor slitherer? "Well, I don't know," Yoder mulls, fingering his salt-and-pepper Vandyke. "Now, if you'da found one, I guess that woulda been a story."

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