If you see one of these slimy creatures, NC officials want to hear about it

If you see one of these slimy creatures, NC officials want to hear about it
Credit: Photo provided to the Observer courtesy of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission)

CHARLOTTE, NC (Bruce Henderson/The Charlotte Observer) - They are the biggest, slimiest, homeliest salamanders you're likely to ever see — hellbenders, which lurk under rocks in mountain streams and can grow a stunning 17 inches long.

Let North Carolina's Wildlife Resources Commission know if you spot one.

Not the most charismatic of wildlife, hellbenders are commonly known by nicknames that allude to their mottled, squishy shapes, tiny eyes peering from fat, flat heads, and slimy secretions: Water dog. Mud puppy. Lasagna lizard. Snot otter.

Because the aquatic salamanders breathe through their skin, hellbenders can't survive in dirty water. That makes them good bioindicators, the word for species that signal degrading environmental conditions.

The news isn't good. Once common, hellbenders have disappeared through much of their range because of declining water quality. Some anglers also kill them, state biologists say, under the misguided notion that hellbenders eat trout (they actually prefer crayfish).

The N.C. Zoo, which partners with the wildlife commission, state universities and federal agencies in a decade-old survey of hellbender populations, says there's evidence their numbers might have plummeted by up to 77 percent.

The N.C. wildlife commission asks the public to report sightings of hellbenders as part of that study. Don't pick them up, the commission says, but email the physical location or GPS coordinates, and a photo if possible, to biologist Lori Williams at lori.williams@ncwildlife.org. Observers may also report sightings to the commission's help line at 866-318-2401.

The N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund granted $34,000 to the nonprofit group Wild South to restore streams in western North Carolina for hellbenders, Asheville's Citizen Times reported in December.

"Hellbender populations are now largely confined to public lands so restoring stream reaches that will benefit those populations will, in effect, extend the water quality protections that the National Forests provide to private lands as well," Wild South biologist Morgan Harris told the paper.

An old myth that hellbenders are venomous also led to their persecution but is "wrong on all levels," Williams, who studies them, says in a commission statement. Because of their scarcity, hellbenders have legal protection in North Carolina. It's a misdemeanor punishable by a fine and up to four months in jail to take or possess one.

"Although hellbenders are large, slimy and can be scary looking, particularly if you've never seen one before, they are nothing to fear. They are harmless and not poisonous, venomous or toxic. And while they may try to bite if picked up, they will leave you alone, if you leave them alone."