Nick Baker's Wierd Creatures - Friday October 26

nick baker’s weird creatures
the hellbender (4/8)

Continuing his second series of compelling nature documentaries, Nick Baker goes on the trail of another strange beast from a far-flung corner of the globe. In tonight’s edition, Nick is in the Appalachian mountains in the USA on the hunt for the hellbender –an extremely rare giant salamander with a sinister reputation and an uncertain future.

The hellbender is a form of giant salamander –an amphibian similar to the common newt found in Britain. However, the hellbender is a water-dwelling creature that is only found in two niche areas –the fast-flowing Davidson river in Appalachian North Carolina and, to a lesser extent, further west in the mountainous Ozark region of Missouri.

Salamanders are not regarded as the most beautiful creatures on the planet, due to their folds of pock-marked slimy skin and flat, broad heads with wide, cavernous mouths. The hellbender is considered the least attractive species of the salamander family –hence the terrifying name. Locally, these fascinating amphibians have even more derogatory colloquial monikers, such as ‘devil dogs’ and ‘snot otters’. Historically the hellbender has been thought of as a poisonous menace that jeopardises the local fishing industry and may well have crawled straight out of Satan’s lair. But, as Nick discovers, they do not deserve the bad press they have received over the years.

Nick takes to the waters of the Davidson river, where the eastern variation of hellbender is found. He finds baby hellbenders quite quickly, but it is not until the end of the day that he gets his hands on a prized adult male. “That has got to be one of the most beautifully ugly creatures I’ve ever set eyes on,” marvels Nick. The hellbender writhes in Nick’s gloves, its slimy body covered in pimples and saggy folds of skin, with two tiny, piercing eyes on its mallet-shaped head. It reminds Nick of the earliest amphibians ever to crawl out of the water. “This is 200 million years in the making,” says an awestruck Nick.

However, there is an invisible menace at work which is threatening the existence of the hellbender. In the rapids of the Davidson it is not quite as grave an issue, but further west, in the Ozark region of Missouri, it is two minutes to midnight in the hellbender world. Nick, joined by Jeff Brigger of the Missouri Department of Conservation, takes a look in the calmer waters of the Ozarks to see for himself. Not only has the hellbender population dwindled by 80 per cent in the last 30 years, but those remaining have severe deformities –missing toes, limbs and open sores. Nick and Jeff are surprised to find as many as 12 hellbenders in the river –but, sadly, only 30 years ago that number would have been closer to 300. “Ten of the 12 animals have some kind of abnormality,” says Jeff. “There is a 95 per cent chance of extinction of this animal over the next 75 years,”

There are several prime suspects at work: one is that it is hellbenders themselves causing harm to others of their species; another is that the seemingly innocuous brown trout is to blame. One theory is that the water is being polluted, thus affecting the sperm count of the hellbenders. Or it could be that the mutilation is being caused by a mysterious fungus carried by an African frog that was introduced into the area some time ago. “It is a sobering thought,” muses Nick on the plight of the hellbender. Whatever is to blame for the demise of this wonderfully grotesque animal, all those with a vested interest in the protection of the area’s richly diverse ecosystem need to act quickly –or else this oft-misunderstood amphibian will be no more.

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  • Anonymous

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