Hellbender ‘Re-discovered’ in Northwest Georgia

Hunter Owens with the hellbender he caught while fishing in a Northwest Georgia stream.

Young Hunter Owens of East Ridge, Tenn. got a surprise while fishing for catfish in a stream near Ringgold, Ga., last December. Although Hunter didn’t catch a record-sized catfish, what he did catch raised the eyebrows of many herpetologists.

“I thought I had just snagged my line on some trash or a stick, but after I reeled in my line, I knew that I had caught something special,” the 14-year-old said. “I was going to put it back, but thought that someone needed to see this.”

That something was a 16-inch-long hellbender, the largest species of salamander in North America, which can grow up to 2 feet in length!

Even more noteworthy was where the hellbender was found. It is the first hellbender documented from a stream in northwest Georgia since 1959.

Biologists from DNR’s Nongame Conservation Section had already planned to survey this area for hellbenders, as part of a long-term monitoring effort started last year. But this notable “re-discovery” has made the mission more encouraging.

“Although 16 inches makes for a large salamander, this is actually a moderately-sized hellbender, which suggests there has been successful reproduction where this individual was found,” said Thomas Floyd, the DNR herpetologist leading the hellbender project. “There is likely a thriving population at this location that has previously evaded notice.”

Hunter’s hellbender recently served as an ambassador for the species in an exhibit at the 2012 Weekend for Wildlife, an annual fundraiser benefitting conservation of rare wildlife across Georgia, and will be released back into the stream where Hunter caught it.

Hellbenders are a protected species in Georgia. Anglers or others who inadvertently catch one should photograph the creature for documentation (if possible!), then immediately release it back into the stream and report it to the DNR (thomas.floyd@dnr.state.ga.us; 478-994-1478).

Both North American hellbender subspecies have experienced widespread declines, largely because of decreasing habitat. The eastern hellbender, the subspecies found in Georgia, has been petitioned for listing under the Endangered Species Act. The Ozark hellbender, found in the White River system in Missouri and Arkansas, was listed as endangered last year.

Note: Special thanks to Wildlife Biologist Thomas Floyd and Communications/Outreach Specialist Rick Lavender for their contributions to this blog entry.

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