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Originally published: 2013-09-18 15:41:38
Last modified: 2013-09-18 15:41:38

Toe Talk — The Eastern Hellbender salamander

Lori A. Williams / (news@averyjournal.com)

Did you know that North Carolina and the Southern Appalachians is the hot spot for salamander diversity in the world with more than 65 species in our state and about 50 in our mountains alone? Did you also know that one of those salamander species is the largest one in North America — and it lives right here in our back yard in the Toe River! The giant salamander I am referring to is the Eastern Hellbender (a.k.a., water dog, Alleghany alligator, snot otter, devil dog, mud dog, Ol’ Lasagna Sides, etc.), and it can grow to lengths of two feet or more and weigh almost two pounds. That’s a lot of salamander!
No matter what you call it, or what you’ve heard it called, this rather prehistoric, aquatic amphibian is an indicator of relatively clean rivers and streams. Just like some freshwater mussels, fish and stream insects, hellbenders are sensitive to chemically or silt-polluted waters and cannot survive for very long in degraded streams.
Hellbenders rely on clean, cool, well-oxygenated, fast-flowing rivers and streams with large shelter rocks that they can use for cover, foraging and nesting. These cryptic, jumbo salamanders have a flattened head and body for crawling under rocks, powerful jaws and sharp bony ridges in their mouth for crunching through crayfish (their preferred food item), a strong, paddle-like tail for swimming, and even toes on their feet for crawling across the stream bottom. These animals are long-lived (more than 30 years) but take a while to grow up to adulthood (age 6 to 8), which makes their populations particularly vulnerable.

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