The Roger Tory Peterson Institute recently got two new habitants- two eastern hellbenders. These salamanders are kept in a large tank at the museum, with flat rocks to hide under. Their names are Oneka and Tweeg, and they are the coolest looking creatures I have seen. They are slimy and cute, with short little legs, and dark little eyes. They go by many different names, such as snot otters, Allegheny alligators, or mud dog. They are such interesting creatures, but many people know very little about them.
Salamanders are quite diverse in appearance, coming in many different shapes and sizes. However, the biggest salamander of all is the Hellbender. These amphibians are the largest aquatic salamander in the United States, and the third largest aquatic salamander in the world. They can grow over two feet long and look very odd with a flat head, long wrinkly body, and brown spotted skin. They typically live under large rocks or boulders in streams and rivers, and are mostly nocturnal. They eat crayfish, small fish, and tadpoles. The species of hellbenders found in New York are Eastern hellbenders, while another species, called Ozark hellbenders, are found in Missouri and Arkansas. The Ozark hellbenders are endangered, while the Eastern hellbenders is a species of concern. Hellbenders do have lungs, however, they rarely spend much time out of the water. Most of the oxygen hellbenders need is absorbed through its skin, which is part of the reason why hellbenders are becoming endangered.
A disease has been spreading that affects the ability of certain amphibians that breathe through their skin. This disease is called chytrid, a pathogenic fungus. This can hurt the hellbenders by inhibiting the amount of oxygen that can be absorbed through the skin. Another cause of the declining populations is water pollution. Hellbenders are very sensitive to polluted water, and need clean, cold, oxygen-rich freshwater to survive. The pollution can cause other diseases that damage the skin, or make them more susceptible to chytrid disease. Populations in New York have been steadily declining, with the Allegheny populations declining 40% since the 1980s. Conservation efforts are being made, with hellbenders being breed in captivity and later released. Hopefully with some help and monitoring, these slimy little creatures will make a come-back and have a large population in the coming years.