They’re Cute, Slimy, Giant, and now Famous: The Eastern Hellbender

Hellbenders: they’re not demogorgans from Stranger Things 2, no matter how many Twitter accounts say so.

Jimmy Hartley, a senior at West Virginia University, is doing his senior research project on eastern hellbenders, Cryptobranchus alleganiensis. This is his thing. He doesn’t dislike birds or trees, but he loves his hellbenders.

Jimmy Hartley measuring a hellbender. Photo: Jillian Clemente

Hellbenders are giant aquatic salamanders, not fictional alien monsters from a TV show. Nicknamed “snot otters” and “mud dogs,” these critters are endemic to the Appalachian Mountain’s streams, which range from New York to Georgia.

The second hellbender caught on Oct. 1. Photo: Jillian Clemente

Normally, they’re hard to find (see “cryptic” in the first part of the scientific name?), but Jimmy managed to find five last year in the West Fork of the Greenbrier River. This year, he continued with his research and spent six weekends over the past few months searching once again for these giant salamanders.

Ty Shannon, a junior at WVU, waits for Jimmy Hartley, a senior at WVU, to lift the rock to look for salamanders. Photo: Jillian Clemente

Hellbenders are so hard to find because the streams they inhabit must be clean and well-oxygenated. Good habitat is in decline because of increasing human development. Hellbenders are actually on the “Near Threatened” category of IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

But we still managed to find three hellbenders this season! All were in the East Fork of the Greenbrier River in the Monongahela National Forest in southeastern West Virginia.

Jimmy Hartley and I with the first hellbender we caught on Oct. 1. Photo: Shelia Hartley

Hellbenders live under big, flat rocks in between larger, cobble-sized rocks, and their colors could be said to be similar to that of a flathead catfish. Well, at least that’s what I thought the first hellbender was.

Luckily, it wasn’t. Rather, it was the salamander of our dreams. Look at those little feet!

Photo: Warren Green

Each weekend was an adventure in its own, from the variety of rented vehicles – a GMC Yukon to a Nissan Note – to trekking through the national forest in peak foliage season.

The West Fork was at least good for photos. Photo: Jillian Clemente

The most recent weekend, Nov. 11 and 12, we caught one, with the help of Jimmy’s dad, Wayne Hartley; his uncle, Warren Greene; and fellow classmate Ty Shannon.

Wayne Hartley, left, Jimmy Hartley, Ty Shannon and Warren Green patiently wait for the silt to clear. Well, Wayne is making some sort of joke, and I’m not sure how patient he’s being. Photo: Jillian Clemente

But this one hellbender caught its own attention on the Internet, too.

The hellbender waits to be measured. Photo: Jimmy Hartley

Ty tweeted about the research on the way home right after we all discussed how we never really know what to tweet about. Irony is a great thing.

Well, it gained traction — over 1,000 retweets and 8,000 favorites — because it looks like the demogorgan, and a few spam accounts quote tweeting it later, we got sent this:

The link to that story is here. Cut to the clip at 27:15, and you’ll spot some salamanders!

So just like Logan waits for the silt to clear, please stay and wait for more stories. There are plenty to tell.

Jimmy Hartley flips a rock, and Logan Orton, a junior at Fairmont State University, waits for the silt to clear. Photo: Jillian Clemente