March 24, 2020
“From Ear to Ear”
- as seen by -Avishai Shuter
“They are remarkably tenacious of life.”
That was how hellbenders (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis) were described in one of the first scientific notes about the behavior of these strange animals.
In 1882, Charles H. Townsend, who would become the first director of WCS’s New York Aquarium in 1902, wrote about traveling to Pennsylvania to hunt for these strange-looking salamanders that many called “water dogs.” Townsend described how hellbenders were so plentiful in the early summer of 1881 that they were a nuisance to local fisherman because they stole the bait off of hooks meant for, in his words, “nobler game.” In the Loyalhanna Creek, he and his friends “…saw quite a shoal of them moving sluggishly about among the stones on the bottom” of the creek. They went fishing for hellbenders for scientific study using hooks baited with pieces of meat and fish, and “in a few minutes we had a dozen.”
Today, hellbenders aren’t nearly as numerous as when Townsend went fishing in the Loyalhanna Creek. Throughout their range, America’s largest salamander species is feeling the intense pressure of habitat destruction. Luckily, conservation efforts at AZA facilities like WCS’s Bronx Zoo are helping hellbenders in their natural habitats.
When I look at this picture, I can’t help but think about how accurate Townsend was when he said that hellbenders’ large mouths stretched from “ear to ear.” What a smile!
EDITOR’S NOTE: Book Citation: Townsend, C.H. 1882. Habits of the Menopoma. The American Naturalist 16(2): 139-140