Highway To….Hellbender!

Monday, June 3, 2019 - by Scott Fiedler

While conducting fish sampling in Cane Creek, a tributary to Great Falls Reservoir, TVA biologists found and collected a baby salamander known as a hellbender.

This was an extremely significant discovery for many reasons: hellbenders have not been detected in any streams flowing to the upper Caney Fork upstream of Great Falls Dam since 1991, despite numerous survey efforts. They had previously only been collected in the Collins and Calfkiller Rivers that flow to Great Falls Reservoir, and this was the first confirmed occurrence in Cane Creek. Also, hellbenders can live up to 30 years, so locating a juvenile that was less than one year old indicates that there has been recent reproduction and that adults are likely present.

The hellbender is listed as endangered by the state of Tennessee and is a Federal Species of Concern.  A small tissue clip was taken from the salamander to further understand the uniqueness of the hellbender in the Cumberland River system in comparison to populations elsewhere in the eastern United States.  Until this discovery, only a few populations were known to still occur throughout the entire Cumberland River system. 

“The species is an excellent biological indicator of pollution and water quality issues such as siltation,” said Jon Mollish, TVA fisheries biologist. “This is good news for Cane Creek, because it indicates the water quality is good enough to sustain hellbenders.” 

Hellbender fun facts:

- The Hellbender is the largest salamander in North America.
- It can grow up to almost 30 inches in length.
- Preferred habitat is clean, fast flowing rocky streams with good water quality.
- They feed on crayfish, fish, snakes and other amphibians.
- Historical range once extended from Georgia to New York and parts of the Midwest. Current range has been greatly reduced due to water quality and stream alterations issues.
- They have lungs, but primarily breathe by absorbing oxygen through their skin. Their wrinkly skin increases surface area, which allows for higher oxygen absorption
- Juveniles, like the one found, have external gills but will lose them as they mature.
- After collection of the tissue sample for DNA analysis, TWRA and TVA biologists released the little salamander unharmed back to the water.

“It would be interesting to learn the status of the hellbender in Cane Creek and the surrounding watersheds,” said Mr. Mollish. “This is a very exciting discovery for us in Natural Resources. Who doesn’t love a baby hellbender?”


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