Yough Hellbenders Remain Elusive

Mountain Watershed Association and the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy teamed up again this spring to search for the eastern hellbender salamander in the waters of the Youghiogheny River. Last year, WPC conducted a traditional “flip-and-turn” survey in which rocks are carefully moved to find the salamanders underneath. But the Yough is notoriously deep and fast-flowing, so the team only found one using the flip-and-turn method. This year, WPC tried a brand new survey method, with hopes of finding more animals.

Watch the video to learn more!

What is a hellbender?

Hellbenders are large, aquatic salamanders. They have a wide, flat head with tiny eyes and a broad and vertically compressed, rudderlike tail. The body and legs are covered with prominent folds of skin. Hellbenders are part of a healthy natural aquatic environment, and they eat mainly crayfish.

Hellbenders have been on our continent for more than 6 million years, but they are members of only two genera in the family Cryptobranchidae. The other genus, Andrias, occurs strictly in Asia and comprises only two living forms, the Chinese and Japanese giant salamanders, which can grow up to 5 feet long.

Hellbenders, which have highly absorbent skin, are a major indicator of the overall health of a river or stream. If there is something in the water causing their numbers to decline, it can affect other species as well, including humans.

About the survey

To attract the big salamanders, WPC staff built 25 non-invasive wire traps, and baited them with creek chub. They placed the traps for two 24-hour periods at five locations in the river, where people reported seeing hellbenders in the past. The traps were checked and re-baited twice, then pulled from the river on the last day.

This is a brand new method of hellbender surveying for the Conservancy, although similar traps have been used in other states. They used the traps due to the difficulty of using traditional survey methods in the deep, fast waters of the Yough.

We didn’t find any hellbenders in the river during this short, three-day survey period. Nonetheless, WPC staff remain optimistic that these sneaky salamanders will show up eventually! The Yough is a prime habitat, with lots of boulders to provide shelter and plenty of prey for the long-lived hellbender to hunt.