The next time you visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park, know there’s a giant in your midst. Or a giant salamander, at least.
If you want to know anything at all about salamanders, in fact, East Tennessee is the place to be. Known as the “Salamander Capital of the World,” the region hosts more salamander diversity than any other place on earth. And there’s no better man to offer an amphibious intro than Paul Super.
Paul Super is Science Coordinator for Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GRSM) and Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center at The Purchase. He’s led GRSM’s scientific research for over 20 years, and speaking with him for our National Parks Journal proves a masterclass in biodiversity.
Welcome to ‘The Salamander Capital of the World’ and Home of the ‘Snot Otter’
“We have several different species or types of organisms that people come to the Smokies specifically to see. Some come to see the black bear. They now come to see the elk. Some fish for brook trout in our streams. And the other charismatic fauna they come for – they’re not megafauna or microfauna, but they’re ‘cute’ – are our salamanders,” Paul offers for Outsider.
But of the “thirty-plus firmly described species in the park,” he says, one has sparked the Appalachian imagination above all else: the “snot otter,” or hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis).
These wildly peculiar salamanders aren’t just the largest in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but the largest in all of North America. They can grow to be two-feet long; sometimes surpassing this by several inches. “The largest specimen was 28-inches long, I believe, and found in a section of the park,” Paul smiles. Despite their enormous size, however, hellbenders are pretty typical salamanders and possess their “slimy,” snot-like appearance. Hence the unsettling name.
As for where this fantastic moniker came from, “Well, they’re large and they look a little like an otter and they look like they’re made out of snot, so what else would you call them?” Super laughs.
Hellbenders have also been called the Allegheny alligator, mud dog, mud-devil, lasagna lizard, and leverian water newt, to name a few. But their true name, hellbender, likely comes from early U.S. settler’s aversion to their, well, hellish appearance.
These two-foot amphibians are carnivorous giants, too. They feed mainly on crayfish (another Appalachian staple) or other similarly-sized prey. This, too, is typical for salamanders, however, of which all adults are meat-eaters.
Where to Find a ‘Snot Otter’
“The hellbenders live in our larger streams, and they will lay their eggs under large, flat rocks,” Paul continues of the remarkable species. “They also spend most of their time under these same rocks, and will mostly come out during the night. This is one of the main reasons why the national park has a program encouraging visitors not to move, stack, or disturb rocks or streams in any way.”
“It is kind of whimsical to stack or make some sort of structure out of rocks, but we highly discourage that in our park,” Paul emphasizes. “We try to keep the rocks from being flipped over, or to have the hydrology of the streams changed in any way. This can expose or scatter hellbender eggs and impact the species greatly. Instead, we like to encourage people to enjoy things the way they are.”
If you can tolerate how cold the streams of GRSM are, however, Paul says “It can be a lot of fun to snorkel around and peer under these rocks with your eyes and see if you can spot their own white, beady eyes staring back at you.
But no matter which way you choose to explore the Smokies, or what species you want to help protect, “It’s important not to move rocks or change streams in any way,” Super continues. “It’s also important to pick up your garbage and not pollute the environment around you in any way. If you do try to enjoy things the way they are, you stand a better chance of seeing a hellbender. You get a better chance to enjoy the park for what you came to do.”
Conservation Status: Great Smoky Mountains National Park Hellbenders in 2022
As for the conservation status of these giant amphibians, “It is better in places that have good water quality, and pretty bad in places that have poor water quality. They’re a species of concern, at least, because of these problems of water quality in some parts of their range. We’re hoping that at least one of our streams qualifies as a good place for hellbenders, and we’re working with the state of North Carolina particularly to better understand our populations,” Paul adds.
Currently, GRSM is trying to get a better understanding of what diseases hellbenders have been exposed to, he cites, alongside “how stressed they are by our environment and what their genetic diversity is. We don’t want them to be all inbred which would impact their ability to reproduce. We’re also looking at a project that can monitor the species just by testing the water, a process called E-DNA, or Environmental DNA.”
By doing so, “You can take a water sample, filter it, and then test the filter to see if you have any hellbender DNA. They’ll shed some of tgheir skin cells into the water, and you can determine what animals are upstream of you. It’s a way to monitor the populations that avoid turning over rocks.”
Anything Paul and fellow GRSM researchers can do to study a species “without bothering the thing we’re trying to learn more about,” he says, is well worthwhile. Conservation at its finest.
A National Park Giant Worth Protecting
So how many hellbenders exist in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 2022? “You can get an idea of how many are upstream in a very general way with E-DNA, but we still don’t have anything in the way of a useful number.” The Smokies remain, however, “a good place to look for hellbenders.”
In short: we don’t know. But what we do know is a species worth protecting, whether you call them snot otters, devil dogs, mud cats, or hellbenders.