Largest Salamander in the Great Smoky Mountains

I never thought mistakes would come in so handy. Once again, I joined the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to go electroshocking. It was not until we reached the site that we realized we had left the battery packs for the shockers. When Micah, the lead wildlife technician, told us we were going to put on wetsuits and snorkels to look for hellbenders, my heart almost stopped. Hellbenders are a fully aquatic salamander species that are very rare to find, but very promising if found. They can grow up to two feet and are one of the three gigantic salamander species around the world, close to being an endangered species. When I got the news of being accepted in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I made a bucket list of animal species to see, black bears, and hellbenders were on the top of the list. I was already asking biologist for good spots to find them, but they were very general. Telling me to look in such and such rivers, but of course, one man looking for hellbenders in a 10-foot-wide river can be very hard. And today may have been a day I finally got to see one. So, we hopped on our wetsuits and started walking to our first spot. We would bring instruments to measure, weight, take tissue samples, and put trackers on them, but the heaviest was a PVA, a large wooden instrument used to lift heavy boulders–very effective. 

Here I am using a wetsuit to demonstrate how I would look for Hellbenders

Getting ready to find Hellbenders

A PVA used to lift heavy boulders to look for Hellbenders

A very useful instrument to lift heavy boulders and find Hellbenders

While snorkeling I was able to spot fish species I had never seen before like Warpaint Shiners and Hognose Suckers. But while admiring the fish, I would also stick my hands under large rocks known as den rocks to spot hellbenders. It didn’t take long until Micah found one. I heard him say to Jacob and I, “I found one’. I think I have never swum so fast towards someone. And there it was, a giant salamander, a majestic animal that is only judged by his looks–so classical of human beings. We placed him in a bucket and started collecting data such as length, width, tail width, general review of any physical deformities or injuries, weight, tissue samples, and inserted a tracker in the base of its tail, where he had mostly tissue and no organs.

After our general analysis of the hellbender, we were to release it and take GPS coordinates for later reassessment and surveys during breeding season. Before its release though, I was able to hold it and take a picture with a one-of-a-kind animal. It was enormous, slimy, but so beautiful. The Smokies has a great variety of salamanders, but nothing compares itself to the Hellbender.

After my picture, we released it in the same rock it was found. It looked so graceful and peaceful entering its little rock hole once again.

The Hellbender is released into its den rock

Quickly after releasing the Hellbender he swam into his den rock

After that first hellbender found, we were not able to see any more salamanders, but I was more than happy with that sole hellbender we found. We continued snorkeling different sites in Raven Fork for six hours, but only spotted fishes and crayfish. After calling it a day, we were on our way to the EBCI building and we get a call about a timber rattlesnake in the fish hatcheries. We rushed over there and attended the situation, grabbing the snake and relocating it.

Watch how quickly I shut the box once the rattlesnake is inside

A Timber Rattlesnake collected in a box

Gotta give it to her, she’s beautiful

What an amazing day, full of surprises that only made me happier each. In one day I was able to scratch two animals of my bucket list, a hellbender and a timber rattlesnake. I could not have asked for a more memorable day.

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