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Wednesday, 27 June 2007 00:00

The elusive hellbender

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Have you ever noticed that once you start thinking about something or someone you haven’t seen in awhile, it’s not long before he, she, or it pops up? This can be disconcerting when it’s a he, she, or it you don’t particularly want to see.

On the other hand, visualizing can be an effective method of locating rare or uncommon plants and animals that you want to observe. I don’t necessarily mean visualizing in a mystical sense, although I don’t necessarily exclude mystical processes either. What I have in mind could also be described as heightened awareness — a process by which you think about some plant or animal, read about it, and (to a lesser extent) talk about it so that you: (1) identify ahead of time what you’re looking for; (2) know where and when to look for it; and (3) thereby recognize it when encountered.

Almost all of the rare plants and animals I’ve ever located were detected in this manner. For the most part, you have to “know” something exists before you can really “see” it. My guess is that each of us walks right by a rare plant or near a rare animal many times without being aware of its presence. The problem, of course, is that we aren’t attuned properly. We literally can’t “see” the thing because, for us, it doesn’t exist.

For instance, up until seven years ago, when the first edition of The Sibley Guide to Birds was published, I didn’t know there is an orange-colored variant of the male scarlet tanager that’s reported with regularity by those on the lookout for it. Within two weeks of studying Sibley’s illustration of this variant on the bottom of page 463 of his field guide, I had located one for myself near Lake Junaluska. I did so only because I knew that it existed and was looking for it each time I head the raspy robin-like song of a male tanager.

A visualization experiment I’ve decided to conduct this summer involves a huge salamander commonly known as the hellbender. Twenty or more inches long, short-legged, flat-headed, and wrinkle-skinned, these grayish-brown amphibians have been described as “one of the world’s ugliest creatures.” Completely aquatic and lacking external gills, they exchange gases through their skins.

When you see a hellbender, you should know what it is without any difficulty. But don’t confuse it with the common mudpuppy, a much smaller salamander species that displays maroon plume-like gills and is reported in North Carolina, to my knowledge, only from the headwaters of the French Broad River.

Although said to be fairly common in the larger streams and creeks of Western North Carolina (mainly in waters within the Mississippi drainage), I’ve not spotted a hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis) but twice in my life — once in the early 1970s and again in the early 1980s. Each time I was fishing Deep Creek in the national park and thereby paying close attention to the water as I waded and cast spinners into the pools.

Hellbenders don’t strike artificial lures, but they do eat many of the sorts of food that fishermen use as bait — crayfish, earthworms, insects, etc. — so that, in waters where bait fishing is allowed, they are sometimes hooked.

In his now-classic book titled The Appalachians (1965), Maurice Brooks noted that, “Many persons believe (wrongly, of course) that the creatures are deadly poisonous [so that] many a fisherman cuts his line rather than release one.”

Brooks also observed that hellbenders (or waterdogs, as they are sometimes called) “are nocturnal, and how so many large animals can remain concealed on a stream bottom during the day is a mystery. Somehow they do it; when nighttime comes they are there.”

Both of the hellbenders I encountered were lolling around in about three feet of water near large rocks at mid-day. Maybe they had insomnia or it’s more probable that the sky was overcast. Like other aquatic animals, they may feed actively during runoffs after rainy spells when the water is dingy and they can’t be observed.

Roger Conant in A Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of Eastern and Central North America (1975) stated that, “Hellbenders sometimes may be caught by slowly overturning or moving large rocks in clear, relatively shallow streams, and taking them by dip net or by hand. Since they are exceedingly slimy, the fingers must encircle the neck and immobilize both front legs on the first grab.”

A female hellbender just over 29 inches in length is preserved in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park collection of preserved amphibians. It was taken in the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River near Gatlinburg. The Nature Center at Highlands also has a large preserved hellbender that is sometimes placed on display.

Understandably, the early Cherokees looked askance at anyone who chose to eat a hellbender, which they called “juwa” in association with the evil spirits of the “Underworld.” According to late 19th century anthropologist James Mooney, the critter’s consumption by an individual immediately prior to going into the field was associated with crop failure.

I don’t want to capture, eat, or otherwise unduly disturb the hellbender population here in the mountains. I just want to see another one or two and have the opportunity to pay closer attention to their configuration and lifestyle in the wild. I just want to get “to know” hellbenders a little better.

They have as much of a right to pursue their destinies as I do, maybe more. But by first “visualizing” them, then locating and observing them, I can perhaps in a small way enlarge my sense of what it means to be a part of this curious web of life here in the southern highlands.

(Note: There is a web site with diverse information and short videos that can be accessed at www.hellbenders.org.)

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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