“Mud Dog!” “Ground Puppy!” “Snot Otter!” No matter what you call them, hellbender salamanders are fascinating creatures, and the NC Aquarium on Roanoke Island is excited to introduce a new hellbender to its Wild Wetlands Gallery family. Hellbenders reside naturally in the eastern part of the United States and are famous for being the largest species of salamander in the country. The aquarium’s previous hellbender outgrew its habitat and now resides at the NC Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores. This new hellbender comes to the NC Aquarium from the Fort Worth Zoo in Texas, which operates a program raising hatched salamanders from a larval stage as part of a conservation and repopulation strategy.
Hellbenders often grow to more than a foot long and have been recorded as large as 29 inches, and though the aquarium’s new hellbender isn’t that long yet, he is growing fast.
“This is a really interesting animal, and we’re grateful to have another in the public view,” said Aquarist Jessica Foti, who has been working with the hellbender behind the scenes since its arrival last October. Like all animals coming to the aquarium, this one lived in a quarantine area prior to being introduced to the public. This gave Foti the opportunity to see that the animal acclimated properly, monitor its health and well-being, make sure it did not have any issues that could affect other animals, and work with it on feeding and training. Foti uses tongs to hand-feed crickets, small fish, crayfish and other snacks to the salamander. That way, she can make sure it is eating the proper amount of food, and also keep food residue from spoiling in its habitat. The salamander has responded well to the feeding technique. “She is a good eater,” Foti says.
The hellbender’s surroundings in the Wild Wetlands Gallery imitate the animal’s natural habitat, with swiftly running, cold, oxygen-rich water. Though hellbenders have lungs, they absorb most of their oxygen through their skin. Rocks in the habitat provide places to hide, much like those found in creeks throughout the eastern U.S.
Hellbender salamanders are considered a “near-threatened” species, with some locations reporting significant declines in population due to habitat loss and pollution of streams and rivers. Ensuring and protecting clean waterways is the best way to support the habitat of these “water dogs.”