The hunt for hellbenders

As a passel of high school interns tugged and squirmed their way into wetsuits along the edge of the Oconaluftee River last month, Park Ranger Susan Sachs — a seasoned salamander hunter — shared a few tricks of the trade.


“The general rule with salamander hunting is the bigger the rock, the bigger the salamander,” Sachs said.

They hoped to track down the largest salamander of all, the elusive hellbender. The group would spend the day peering under large rocks — sometimes taking two to three people armed with log rollers to lift — where the hellbenders make their homes.

“If you see big flat rocks with crawl spaces underneath, those are the rocks we want to lift,” Dr. Michael Freake, one of the nation’s top hellbender experts, told his helpers for the day.

Hellbenders are similar to their better-known Deep South cousins, the mud puppy. If you’re still in the dark, imagine an underwater iguana. Hellbenders are prehistoric creatures from the Jurassic Period, one of the first amphibians. They have wide mouths that wrap from ear to ear around their faces and are chock full of teeth. They love crayfish, but settle for just about any unsuspecting creature that happens by their rock at dinner time.

“They seem to be a sit and wait ambusher,” Freake said. “If something swims by they just inhale it basically.”

Much about the hellbender is a mystery, however. Freake, a researcher at Lee University, is surveying creeks and rivers in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to find where they live and how many there are. Local high school interns working in the park for the summer through a Burroughs Wellcome Fund grant were deployed to help Freake make a sweep up the Oconaluftee River outside Cherokee.

They fanned out in the river, lowered their snorkels and flopped on their bellies in search of promising large rocks. Some rocks were so massive and heavy it seemed impossible for anything to be under there. Freake postulated that the hellbenders burrow under the rocks and actively carve out a hole for their home. Once a hellbender stakes claim to a good rock, he won’t give it up easily.

“I have one hellbender in the Hiwasee that’s recognizable because it has a leg missing and we’ve found him under the same rock three years in a row,” Freake said.

Hellbenders can be territorial over their rocks.

“They actually fight quite a lot. Some them have bite marks or are missing toes or legs,” Freake said.

The perfect egg-laying rock is also a hot commodity.

“They are looking for something that is hard for predators to get into and wouldn’t shift during the winter rains,” Freake said. “There’s a limited number of good rocks. The biggest hellbenders win, so you don’t breed until you get big basically.”

Hellbenders don’t breed until they get half

Rock after rock was lifted, until finally Freake emerged with a writhing grey salamander. One good long look at the giant-mouthed creature and the thought of sloshing around in the river in water sandals became a tad disconcerting. Freake assuaged any fears, however. Consider this, he said. Deep Creek is the most popular real estate in the park for hellbenders. It’s also the most popular swimming hole. Hundreds of children float down the creek in inner tubes every day in the summer and none have lost a toe yet.

Hellbenders can get a bit ornery when they are plucked from the water and mauled around by Freake and his team, however, who weigh them, measure them and take a DNA samples. One bite inflicted on a researcher took stitches. Thus is the life of a hellbender hunter.

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