The first time Lori Williams picked up a snotty otter, she almost dropped it.
“Holding it for the first time was tough, because they’re solid and quite slippery,” said Williams, a certified biologist for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. “I was overjoyed and in total awe of this incredible giant salamander!”
A student at the time of her first close encounter with the Hellbender salamander – also known as the snot otter or water dog – Williams’ fascination with the amphibian became the focus of her career.
With trout fishing season starting Saturday, April 2, that means spreading the word about how people can spot and help protect the species.
The future of the two giant salamanders – hellbenders and mudpuppies – remains in the hands of Williams and other biologists.
hellbenders and mudpuppies are considered a “species of special concern” in North Carolina, according to the Wildlife Resources Commission. The masters of hell are also considered a “kind of greater conservation need,” according to the North Carolina Wildlife Action Plan.
Hellbenders have declined in population since the state began tracking them in 2007, though sightings are often more frequent as the state opens up trout waters for fishing, according to a statement. Press.
This is where the audience comes in.
“People are starting to understand the connection between a healthy number of hellbenders and clean water, which has direct implications for humans and animals alike,” Williams said. “Citizen scientists are essential to our conservation efforts because they help update records of known populations, identify new hellbender sites we didn’t know about before, and add so many good sightings.”
In 2018, 125 citizens reported a salamander sighting. In 2020, that number nearly doubled to 248. Last year, the commission collected 243 sighting reports.
“Public response has exploded over the past few years, with the highest total coming in 2020,” Williams said. “Maybe we can break the record this year!”
Most sightings are of hellbenders, Williams said, because mudpuppies are more elusive.
The reports help the state identify demographic trends based on where citizens find hellbenders and mudpuppies and their ages.
“When we don’t find animals at all where they once were, that’s an indication of possible decline,” Williams said. “If we only see older adults but don’t find young animals or even nests, that’s another red flag that the population is declining and they’re not breeding successfully.”
Part of the declining population is a dangerous mix of environmental degradation and misinformation, according to Williams.
Breaking the salamander stereotype
After Williams earned an undergraduate degree in English and realized it wasn’t her calling, she returned to school to study wildlife conservation.
“Salamanders, frogs and turtles were some of the first animals I came into contact with as a kid,” Williams said. “I wasn’t really aware of the depth of that connection, though. My true calling was wildlife conservation and ecology, and once I truly realized that, I was in a happier place.
The main threats to hellbenders and mudpuppies are habitat degradation, poor water quality and the false belief that they feed on trout, according to Williams.
“This misconception still leads some people to harm or kill hellbenders, which is illegal,” Williams said.
Hellbenders may scavenge already-caught trout for easy prey, but salamanders primarily eat crayfish, minnows, tadpoles, and other small aquatic creatures from the bottom of rivers and streams.
Educating the public about the safety of the salamander will help improve the relationship between humans and the masters of hell, Williams said.
“Over the years, as more and more people share their stories, photos and videos with us, it’s great to see and hear the enthusiasm of people of all ages, and it seems they love the fact that they contribute to conservation efforts,” Williams mentioned.
How to spot a salamander
The mudpuppy and the master of hell are often confused, but there are ways to tell them apart.
The hellbenders are the largest salamanders in North America and can measure up to 17 inches long, the commission said. They have a flat, broad head and brown, wrinkled skin with mottled, dark blotches. Hellbenders are usually found in clean, fast-moving mountain streams.
Mudpuppies reach about 10 inches in length and have smooth, light brown skin with red feathered spots and gills, according to the commission. Mudpuppies live in deep rivers, large ponds, and lakes, but can also live in clean streams.
“We know less about mudpuppies than we know about masters of hell, but we’d like to know a lot more about both,” Williams said in the press release. “Spotted pups are attracted to baited hooks in lakes and deep rivers, so anglers fishing from boats can catch one. We need everyone who fishes deep river sites and backwaters to let us know if they find one.
The master of hell and the mudpuppy are not poisonous, venomous or poisonous to humans, according to the commission, but they might try to bite if a person picks them up. Citizens should leave them alone if they are spotted in the wild and report them to Williams.
People who encounter a giant salamander are asked to email Williams at Lori.Williams@ncwildlife.org or call the commission’s hotline at 866-318-2401 and provide details. on observing.
Taking, possessing, transporting or selling hellbenders and mudpuppies from their habitat is considered a Class 1 misdemeanor and can result in a fine and up to 120 days in jail, according to the commission.
This story was originally published April 1, 2022 2:32 p.m.