If you've splashed around in the creeks of Appalachia, you may have been close to the largest salamander in North America, the Eastern hellbender, but you probably wouldn't have known it. Learn about this magnificent critter in a short documentary produced by Freshwaters Illustrated and the US Forest Service.
Eastern hellbenders, also called "snot otters" because of their slime-covered skin, are cryptic creatures that live in creeks and streams in the American northeast. They're so good at hiding their flattened bodies beneath large rocks on the bottom of fast-flowing waterways that you could walk right by one and never notice.
But don't think that just because they're drab-colored amphibians that they aren't fascinating. They breathe through their skin, for one thing. And they have a lateral line, like fishes and sharks, that they use to detect the vibrations of their prey in the water. Their eyesight is poor, but they have light-sensitive cells all over their skin. It's thought that their light-detecting skin is what allows them, in part, to hide so well. If they detect any light, it means part of their body is visible to predators. And they can live for quite a while; just last week I met a 30-year-old individual at the Hellbender Conservation Center at the Wilds in Cumberland, Ohio.
Their unique adaptations are many, but that makes it hard to survive anywhere else. On one hand, that makes the species an excellent bellwether for ecosystem health. If hellbenders are doing well, then the entire stream is healthy. But as a result of habitat loss and degradation, they've become quite endangered.