Ancient river creature yields clue to environment

Aug 13, 2012 By Mark Davis
Cryptobranchus alleganiensis. Image by Brian Gratwicke

The monster rocketed from the water. It wriggled to the right, wiggled to the left, then - splat! - smacked Grover Brown in the guts. A lesser scientist would have quailed. Not Brown.

"Got him!" He grabbed the creature, fell on his butt and held tight while Thomas Floyd and Theresa Stratmann moved in for the capture. They acted quickly, as monster catchers must. They shoved the creature into a net, where he writhed and thrashed.

For a moment, no one said anything, their eyes drawn to the slithery thing they'd discovered in a mountain stream - the eastern hellbender, long on slime, short on personality, 13 inches of cold-blooded indignation.

Don't scoff at the size. Never has a creature managed to pack so much ugly into so few inches, and a hellbender can grow up to 2 feet long. In the world of amphibians, that makes Cryptobranchus alleganiensis a monster. In North America, no is bigger than this creature that hides under rocks in cold streams, and remember: In China, relatives of the eastern hellbender can exceed 5 feet.

North Georgia may have more eastern hellbenders than anywhere on Earth.

Since midsummer, Floyd, Brown and Stratmann have been looking for the shovel-nosed creepers in Georgia mountain streams, conducting research for the state Department of Natural Resources. It's important, they say: Hellbenders are the aquatic equivalent of the canary in the , a creature whose well-being measures the quality of their environment. They've caught and released more than 80.

Floyd, 36, a DNR wildlife biologist, has led the probes. Summer employees Stratmann, 21 and a senior ecology major at the University of Georgia, and Brown, 22, who just got his ecology degree from UGA, have been with him every wet step.

"They're so cool," said Stratmann, whose lower right leg sports the tattoo of a loggerhead sea turtle. "They're so misunderstood." It's hard to get warm and fuzzy over hellbenders. Some folks call them "snot otter" - touch one and you'll know why - while others prefer "devil dog" or "mud-devil." No one is sure who gave the hellbender its name, though some folklorists have suggested that American settlers came up with the moniker: Surely such a homely critter was bent toward hell.

It's an unfair rap, said Floyd. "Hellbenders," he said, "are pretty benign." And that's the only time you'll see "pretty" in this story.

Hellbenders were already old when hadrosaurs, duck-billed dinosaurs whose remains have been found in Georgia, roamed the land 65 million years ago. By the time mammoths walked in Georgia, some 50,000 years ago, hellbenders were ancient.

But can they survive Homo sapiens? Hellbenders do best in cool, riffling streams, and ecologists fear that the growing popularity of mountain living threatens them.

"Hellbenders require incredibly clean water," said Joe Mendelson, curator of amphibians and reptiles at Zoo Atlanta. "They're our built-in fire alarm. That has direct implications for humans, because we need clean water to survive."

Floyd's prognosis? "Hellbenders are in trouble."

The trouble varies from stream to stream. So far this summer, Floyd and his assistants have visited more than 20 sites. They'll search until mid-August, when hellbender breeding season begins.

On the last day of July, they stood beside a creek in the forested folds of Union County, 100 miles north of Atlanta. In a 2007 survey, biologists caught and released eight hellbenders along a nearly 400-yard stretch of the stream; the trio hoped to at least duplicate that take.

Fat raindrops dripped from a canopy of hardwoods as the trio waded upstream, carrying an armload of scientific instruments. They walked a few feet before stopping at a rock that resembled a giant, fossilized shark's tooth, triangular and black, in less than a foot of water. Stratmann squatted downstream from the stone, placing two fishermen's nets against its edge to snag anything that might slither out.

Brown crouched at her side, his hands hovering like raptors atop a thermal, waiting to swoop. Floyd grabbed the rock and counted: "One, two, three - " Floosh! Floyd ripped the rock from the creek. Stratmann readied her nets. Brown reached into the dark place where the stone had been.

Floyd looked at Brown, who shook his head. "Nope."

They replaced the rock and turned to another, repeating the process: squat, yank, reach. This went on for about 15 minutes, a slow march in 60-degree water. Their probes netted two crayfish - a hellbender delicacy, but not very hospitable - and a sculpin, a 3-inch fish with oversized spines.

Then, reaching under a partially submerged stone ?- "Yes!" Brown held a flashing brown something in his hands. Stratmann yelped with delight. Floyd cast a quick look and smiled; it was a young hellbender.

"The fact that we got a young one is great," he said. That meant hellbenders were reproducing. "We don't want to get nothing but a bunch of old men."

Stratmann measured the creature in a PVC pipe cut lengthwise with a ruler affixed inside. The wiggler was 8 inches long. Brown checked for viral infections or fungal growth, taking a swab from its slippery skin. Floyd snipped a minute slice of the creature's tail and deposited it in a tube for future testing. As a final measure, they clipped a tiny, copper-and-glass tag on the creature, tagging it as carefully as they would the family pooch. The nameless animal now has a 15-digit number that will identify the hellbender if another DNR biologist catches it.

Then they returned the hellbender to its rock. It slid under without a backward glance. "This will have a story to tell his friends," said Floyd.

The hunt resumed. They stepped over fallen trees furred with moss, pushed past laurels whose leaves clattered against their shoulders. The searchers came across five tiger swallowtail butterflies resting on a log. They looked like Post-it notes come to life.

But they found no hellbenders. Morning made way for afternoon as the trio reached the end of their 400-yard survey.

Then Floyd remembered the one that got away during a visit two weeks earlier. They headed back downstream, found a triangular rock that looked like a huge shark's tooth, and - "Got him!"

It's too soon to assess the findings to determine stream quality, Floyd said, noting that DNR scientists plan to survey this area again in 2015. Hellbenders may be fast, but science is not.

"We'll be back," he said. "We'll see what we find in three years."

Explore further: Male monkey filmed caring for dying mate (w/ Video)

3.7 /5 (3 votes)
add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Preserving sperm vital to saving 'snot otter' salamanders

Aug 04, 2010

The hellbender salamander -- known affectionately as a snot otter or devil dog -- is one of America's unique giant salamander species. For unexplained reasons, most hellbender populations have rapidly declined ...

Recommended for you

Male monkey filmed caring for dying mate (w/ Video)

Apr 18, 2014

( —The incident was captured by Dr Bruna Bezerra and colleagues in the Atlantic Forest in the Northeast of Brazil.  Dr Bezerra is a Research Associate at the University of Bristol and a Professor ...

Orchid named after UC Riverside researcher

Apr 17, 2014

One day about eight years ago, Katia Silvera, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, Riverside, and her father were on a field trip in a mountainous area in central Panama when they stumbled ...

In sex-reversed cave insects, females have the penises

Apr 17, 2014

Researchers reporting in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on April 17 have discovered little-known cave insects with rather novel sex lives. The Brazilian insects, which represent four distinct but re ...

Fear of the cuckoo mafia

Apr 17, 2014

If a restaurant owner fails to pay the protection money demanded of him, he can expect his premises to be trashed. Warnings like these are seldom required, however, as fear of the consequences is enough to ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Biologists help solve fungi mysteries

( —A new genetic analysis revealing the previously unknown biodiversity and distribution of thousands of fungi in North America might also reveal a previously underappreciated contributor to climate ...

Researchers successfully clone adult human stem cells

( —An international team of researchers, led by Robert Lanza, of Advanced Cell Technology, has announced that they have performed the first successful cloning of adult human skin cells into stem ...

NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs. For three years, Robonaut has had to manage from the waist up. This new pair of legs means the experimental robot—now stuck ...

Ex-Apple chief plans mobile phone for India

Former Apple chief executive John Sculley, whose marketing skills helped bring the personal computer to desktops worldwide, says he plans to launch a mobile phone in India to exploit its still largely untapped ...

Filipino tests negative for Middle East virus

A Filipino nurse who tested positive for the Middle East virus has been found free of infection in a subsequent examination after he returned home, Philippine health officials said Saturday.

Egypt archaeologists find ancient writer's tomb

Egypt's minister of antiquities says a team of Spanish archaeologists has discovered two tombs in the southern part of the country, one of them belonging to a writer and containing a trove of artifacts including reed pens ...

Health care site flagged in Heartbleed review

People with accounts on the enrollment website for President Barack Obama's signature health care law are being told to change their passwords following an administration-wide review of the government's vulnerability to the ...