Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, January 8, 2015

Contact: Collette Adkins Giese, (651) 955-3821

New Study: Deadly Disease Threatens North America's Largest Salamander

Fungus Widespread in Eastern Hellbenders of North Carolina

CHARLOTTE, N.C.— A recently published study provides the first report of a deadly fungal disease in eastern hellbenders in western North Carolina. Once found in streams across the eastern United States, this fully aquatic salamander, which can grow more than 2 feet long, is suffering severe declines and is under review for protection under the Endangered Species Act in response to a petition from the Center for Biological Diversity.

Eastern hellbender
Eastern hellbender photo courtesy Flickr/Brian Gratwicke. This photo is available for media use.

The study, recently published in the journal Herpetological Conservation and Biology, documents that chytrid fungus, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis or Bd, is widespread in western North Carolina waterways. The scientists found that more than 25 percent of wild-caught and captive hellbenders in the region were infected by the deadly disease. Of the numerous threats to hellbenders, disease is one of the more poorly understood, and researchers are just beginning to document the threat posed by chytrid fungus.

“It’s so sad to see hellbenders losing the fight against threats like water pollution and disease,” said Collette Adkins Giese, a Center biologist and lawyer focused on saving rare amphibians and reptiles. “These big salamanders are in big trouble, but the Endangered Species Act can help save them.”

The new study was spurred by the imperiled status of the salamander. Hellbender populations are in sharp decline across the eastern United States, and it is unknown in how many states the large amphibians still survive. States in its range include New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi.

In response to the Center’s petition, the Fish and Wildlife Service found in 2011 that eastern hellbenders may warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act. The Center sued when the agency failed to make a final decision within one year, as the Endangered Species Act requires. The parties reached a settlement in 2013 that requires a protection decision for the eastern hellbender in fiscal year 2018.

“Eastern hellbenders face a long wait for Endangered Species Act protection, but in the meantime, it’s good to see scientists ramping up efforts to study and conserve this imperiled salamander,” said Adkins Giese.

Because their permeable skins absorb contaminants from polluted waterways, the primary threat to eastern hellbenders is declining water quality due to human activities such as mining, agriculture and animal operations. In highly polluted waters, hellbenders develop dramatic skin lesions. Channelization and impoundments — and likely disease, as today’s study documents — also threaten the salamanders.

Ancient animals that have changed very little over time, hellbenders are uniquely adapted to aquatic life. They have paddle-like tails for swimming and flattened bodies and heads that fit in crevices and allow them to cling to the river bottom. Numerous folds of skin on their sides allow increased oxygen absorption from the water. They have lidless eyes and largely rely on vibrations and scents for communication and foraging; they secrete toxic slime to ward off predators but are not poisonous to humans. Hellbenders forage at night, preying on crayfish, insects, dead fish and other amphibians, and are in turn eaten by fish, turtles and snakes.

The eastern hellbender is one of two hellbender subspecies. The other, the Ozark hellbender, is found in streams in northern Arkansas and southern Missouri and was protected under the Endangered Species Act in 2011. Hellbenders are known by a number of colorful common names, including “alligator of the mountains,” “big water lizard,” “devil dog,” “mud devil,” “walking catfish,” “water dog” and “snot otter.”

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 800,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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