Hellbender salamanders could be disappearing, and forests in southwest Virginia may be their best hope for survival.
“This is an animal that’s been around for millions and millions of years. And suddenly, it’s disappearing, and perhaps on the verge of extinction,” said Bill Hopkins, a professor of wildlife conservation at Virginia Tech who’s been studying these salamanders for nearly two decades. Hellbenders are unique for several reasons. They’re giant, up to two feet long. They also help care for their babies, and the dads guard the eggs.
“And then for the little hatchlings that come out of the eggs, for a total of eight months, which is pretty remarkable,” Hopkins said.
Hellbenders do best in swift-flowing, cooler water. When trees and shrubs beside the water are cut down, the temperature and chemistry of the water changes. Cutting foliage also causes more sediment and clay to build up, blocking cavities beneath boulders and small rocks, which young salamanders prefer.
Hellbenders have been in decline for decades. In Virginia, their numbers are actually pretty steady. But what worries Hopkins is that even here, young hellbenders are disappearing. His team recently published a 10-year study, where they observed something pretty startling: in areas where forests had been cut away, the fathers stopped caring for their young. In some cases, the dads actually ate the eggs.
Hopkins said this shift in their behavior may be a warning.
“If hellbenders are trying to tell us something, we need to listen and try to figure it out,” Hopkins said. “I personally think that we’re looking at an animal that’s sort of analogous to a canary in a coal mine. It’s telling us something about the environment. Something we’re doing to the environment.”
Hopkins said some of the best opportunities for hellbenders to thrive are in national forests, since the cool mountain streams are ideal for the salamanders to lay their eggs, and care for their young.