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May 4, 2022
When we think of Chesapeake Bay stewardship, images of charismatic (or delicious) estuarine creatures often come to mind. Blue crabs, oysters, striped bass, ospreys, diamondback terrapins, American oystercatchers — the list is extensive. These species are part of a diverse ecosystem that relies on a specific suite of aquatic conditions for survival and reproduction. Their fates are inextricably intertwined with our commitment to clean water initiatives in the upstream watersheds that feed the Bay. And those freshwater systems are home to many species that can only survive in clean, cool water. In my mind, there’s one freshwater organism that truly illustrates the importance of clean water in those headwaters: the eastern hellbender.
My first interaction with a hellbender was profound. Imagine putting your head underwater in a cool mountain stream and inadvertently coming face-to-face with a gigantic, 15-inch aquatic salamander. We were snorkeling in a clear Pennsylvania mountain stream, looking at crayfish and taking photos of fish with our underwater camera. I peered under a rock to get a closer look at a colorful darter, and there it was: a snot otter, the alligator of the Alleghenies, a devil dog, a grampus. Known by many names, the eastern hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis) is a species of giant salamander endemic to eastern North America. It is a completely aquatic amphibian and can grow to be quite large — the record is almost 30 inches.
Hellbender populations were once widespread throughout the many tributaries and creeks of the Susquehanna River Basin, but their range is now restricted to only a handful of waterways — those with water quality suitable for their survival.
It was no surprise to us that there were hellbenders in that creek. The water was clear and cool, the bank was fully forested and the riparian tree canopy shaded most of the stream. Rocks and gravel covered the stream bottom, and there was no muddy coating of sediment. And the stream was teeming with crayfish — the primary prey of hellbenders — so there was plenty of food for them.
Sadly, the conditions in that particular creek are not as common as they once were. Pollution, runoff, mine drainage, chemical spills, deforestation and more frequent flooding have degraded most of the rocky freshwater streams that hellbenders once called home. Hellbender populations have subsequently declined, and the animals can be found only in the comparatively few streams where unpolluted water remains.
This amphibian has evolved to live in cold, fast-flowing rocky waterways that contain gravelly substrate and large rock slabs. Hellbenders use these slabs for both shelter and food acquisition. It was under one of these where I had my surprising encounter.
It’s no accident that hellbenders prefer fast-flowing, highly oxygenated water. As adults, they have no external gills and obtain oxygen by exchanging gases through their skin — a method known as cutaneous respiration, which is not uncommon among amphibians. The many folds and wrinkles in their skin aid the process, increasing the total surface area available for gas exchange.
Because of this adaptation, hellbenders are extremely sensitive to changes in water conditions. Increased temperature, often a result of lost tree canopy, means less available dissolved oxygen. Erosion that leads to sedimentation and siltation reduces potential hellbender nesting and foraging habitat. Chemicals and nutrients entering the waterways change the water chemistry and can be absorbed through the animal’s skin, disrupting its physiological processes.
Luckily, some waterways have retained their historic conditions, and hellbenders have continued to thrive, though in notably smaller numbers. Many streams in the hellbender range are still degraded. And that’s where stewardship and improved soil conservation practices come in.
Photo Credit: Adam Miller, Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay
The Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay develops programs and provides funding for clean water initiatives throughout the Bay watershed, including the hellbender’s historic range in Pennsylvania. Our forests team focuses on establishing forested riparian buffers — high-density tree plantings along streams, which not only reduce erosion and filter pollutants but will eventually create shade to cool the water.
We partner with county conservation districts, environmental organizations, private landowners and local municipalities to identify streams where buffers are needed and to start the reforestation process. We also work with farmers to reduce nutrient (nitrogen and phosphorus) runoff associated with livestock and agricultural operations. Our buffer program is designed to create this habitat at no cost to the landowner or project participant.
By creating forested buffers, we can enhance local freshwater habitats needed by hellbenders and many other aquatic organisms, while also improving conditions downstream and in the Bay itself.
In 2019, the hellbender officially became the state amphibian of Pennsylvania. The designation creates a symbol that promotes awareness of hellbender conservation and identifies the importance of clean water. In addition to contacting the Alliance or other organizations to volunteer for tree-planting projects, there are other simple ways you can help the hellbender when you’re out and about in nature. If you are wading in a stream that might be clean enough for hellbenders to thrive, don’t flip rocks or disturb the streambed. Don’t remove rocks or build cairns.
If you are lucky enough to see one of these amazing creatures, don’t disclose where it happened. Hellbenders are sometimes illegally collected and sold as pets, so if you feel a need to describe the experience to your friends or post an Instagram photo, be as discreet as possible about the location.
My chance encounter with a hellbender was an unforgettable experience. But without intact riparian forests and the presence of clean water, the opportunity to observe the “alligator of the Alleghenies” might not exist for future generations. And that’s something I just can’t imagine.
So please excuse the language, but the pun is just too appropriate to pass up: As stewards of the Chesapeake, we should all be “hell bent” on clean water.
Pennsylvania Forests Projects Coordinator
(717) 517 8698