Sustainability: Giant Salamanders? Hell, Yes!

Any creature with a name like “hellbender” is bound to raise some eyebrows. But what if this animal was also one of the oldest, most interesting, and least known creatures to inhabit the creeks and streams of southern Appalachia?

The eastern hellbender, Cryptobranchus alleganiensis, is our region’s largest salamander species with adults reaching up to two and a half feet in length and a lifespan that is believed to exceed 60 years. “No one really knows how long they can live,” says Dr. J.J. Apodaca, professor of conservation biology at Warren Wilson College.

For J.J., who specializes in salamander conservation, the hellbender story is about much more than its remarkable size and longevity. “They are excellent indicators of stream quality,” he says, “and they cannot survive in water that has been polluted through human alteration of their habitat.”

Western North Carolina is one of the last strongholds for hellbenders, a protected species listed as “of special concern” in the state. Hellbenders are either struggling or extinct in 85 percent of the streams where they were once healthy and abundant. Their biggest threat is the siltation of streams due to runoff caused by forestry, agriculture, and development.

This summer, nine student interns, two student supervisors, three universities, and two professors have come together in a unique collaboration with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission and the U.S. Forest Service to help give the hellbender a better chance at survival. Warren Wilson College, UNC Asheville, and Duke University all have student representatives who are working on this with Wild South, a regional environmental organization.

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