No more than three minutes after Dylan and I pulled out of the driveway, we realized we forgot our wallets and headlamps. After going through the mental checklist of other items we surely forgot and a brief stop back home, we turned the car around and headed toward Seneca Rocks. It was a cool, drizzly day in the mountains. Slate-blue clouds sank into the folds of towering ridges. Torrential downpours and dense fog obscured dark trees and Seneca’s hulking fin of Tuscarora sandstone. The rainforest aura of the Appalachians never ceases to amaze me, but it did leave me wondering whether our plan was actually going to work.
We were en route to search for the elusive eastern hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis alleganiensis), the largest salamander in North America, and third-largest in the world. After passing Seneca Rocks, we continued toward the Greenbrier River to meet up with Madison “Maddy” Ball and Lisa Maraffa of Friends of the Cheat (FOC), a nonprofit committed to restoring, preserving, and promoting the Cheat River watershed. Maddy, FOC’s Conservation Program Director, started her quest for hellbenders in 2020.
These aquatic animals can grow up to two feet long and live in cool, clear mountain streams throughout West Virginia and the eastern U.S. They have broad heads, flat bodies, stubby limbs, and slimy, wrinkled skin—characteristics that have changed little over the past 150 million years. But since the early 1900s, nearly 80 percent of the eastern hellbender population has been lost due to sedimentation, habitat loss, and other human impacts. “With a species that’s disappearing across its range, it’s really important to understand where they are still doing well,” Maddy said.
The eastern hellbender is listed as near threatened, and the Center for Biological Diversity is currently pushing for the species to obtain endangered status. Knowing where hellbenders occur can help guide conservation efforts to protect these enormous salamanders. “Dams are detrimental to hellbenders because they prevent movement throughout the river and isolate populations from one another. They also impound sediment and can increase the water temperature, which isn’t great habitat for hellbenders,” Maddy described.
Pinpointing where hellbenders occur throughout West Virginia can also provide insight into the health of our rivers. “The Monongahela National Forest is the last stronghold we have of healthy hellbender populations in West Virginia,” said Sean Wineland, who studied hellbenders during his master’s degree at Marshall University. “They’re a keystone species, kind of like a unicorn showing us that the water quality is really good.” When hellbenders are absent from a river due to poor water quality or habitat loss, it can have consequences for all the other species in that environment. But in order to protect hellbenders and the ecosystems where they reside, scientists must first find them—a monumental task even before their populations began declining.
Hellbenders are cryptic creatures. They hide under large rocks during the day and rarely move beyond their home range, which is roughly a quarter the size of a basketball court, when foraging for crayfish at night. Scientists seeking to document where hellbenders occur often conduct snorkel surveys or flip rocks that hellbenders might live under to look for them. “The latter approach has become more controversial. We want to understand their populations and collect data, but are we causing more harm by doing that?” said Maddy.
Along with potentially disrupting the homes of hellbenders, it’s challenging to conduct surveys in big, fast-flowing rivers like the Cheat. “There are boulders the size of your house and so many different areas they could be living in that you can’t access,” Maddy explained. Some of the best data FOC has obtained about hellbenders comes from accidental captures by anglers.
But in 2012, scientists discovered a way to detect elusive, aquatic species without ever seeing them. “Hellbenders are super slimy creatures that constantly shed their outer layers of skin into the water column,” said Wineland. “It makes them really suitable for environmental DNA analyses because there’s a bunch of their DNA floating in the streams if they’re present in that area.” When hellbenders lay eggs during their spawning season, even more DNA is released into the environment. Instead of having to visually locate hellbenders, scientists can collect environmental DNA (eDNA) samples from a river and test it for hellbender DNA to determine whether the giant salamanders are present or absent.
While it may sound like a magical approach for finding hellbenders, it can still be challenging to collect accurate eDNA samples. There’s always the possibility of contamination, particularly from the people doing the collection. Researchers must also time up their sampling window with the spawning season to increase the likelihood of detecting hellbenders. And, of course, unrelenting rains can overwhelm the watershed and damage technical equipment, preventing scientists from collecting samples.
As we continued toward our destination, the rain began to lighten and the sky began to brighten, giving us an ounce of hope that we could not only collect samples, but also document the process. When we arrived at the campsite, Maddy and Lisa had already sampled the river for eDNA to evade the ominous forecast and avoid contaminating the river while conducting a snorkel survey (without flipping rocks) to look for hellbenders. Maddy found a hellbender at this site several years ago that she affectionately named “Jimothy.” Since then, she’s successfully relocated Jimothy five times, and was confident in confirming its presence again during this trip.
Maddy, sporting a snorkel mask and wet suit, entered the frigid river, while Dylan and I set up our camp. Thirty minutes later she returned, deflated and dismayed. Hellbenders are picky about their homes. They live under large, flat rocks that are enclosed on three sides. When their habitats are disturbed, their rock homes can become less stable or filled with sediment, causing hellbenders to flee, or in some cases, die. Recently, a large tree was cut at the campsite, which could have altered Jimothy’s home by changing the water hydrology and filling the rock crevice with sediment. While Maddy doesn’t think it was a fatal incident, Jimothy was nowhere to be found.
Later that evening, under a hazy night sky, we employed another sampling method in hopes of spotting a hellbender prowling for food. We walked down a trail and crossed through the woods back to the river. Delicately stepping along the bank, we shone our headlamps and flashlights into the water in search of a cryptic giant. Without dipping a toe in, we craned our necks to see under rocks and inundated logs, but the chocolate milky water enshrouded all underwater activity. After twenty minutes of staring into the turbid river, we threw in the towel and wandered back to our camp.
But our quest was not an utter failure. The day’s precipitation treated us to an astounding array of mushrooms scattered across the forest floor. Droplets of rain dangled from each tip of the hemlock and red spruce trees, glistening in the fleeting light of my headlamp. On my way to turn in for the night, I just happened upon an Eastern red-backed salamander beneath a wet clump of leaves and a dusky salamander tucked behind a piece of flaky bark.
The next morning, we woke to surprisingly pleasant weather given the forecast. We drank coffee by the river, made a quick breakfast of grits and fresh chanterelles, loaded up our gear, and departed for our first sampling site of the day: another spot in the Greenbrier watershed.
When we arrived, Maddy recorded the date, time, and location, while Lisa, FOC’s Program Assistant and Events Producer, measured the water pH, temperature, and conductivity. Then the two set up a pump system on a floating, neon-green kids’ sled to force water through a sterile filter. Maddy turned on the pump, waded into the middle of the river, and gently placed the filter into the current. Lisa, donning nitrile gloves, patiently watched from ashore, hands outstretched to avoid touching anything until Maddy returned with the sample.
As water flowed through the filter, it caught fragments of eDNA from aquatic wildlife, algae, sediment, and other debris. “It’s got all the answers right here,” Maddy said. Once the pump filled a bucket with five liters of water, Maddy shut it off and precariously brought the filter back to shore. Lisa gently tweezed the filter out of its holder, folded it, and placed it in a plastic bag with silica to dry out the sample. The bag was then labeled for storage until all the remaining samples could be collected and sent off to Missoula, Montana, for eDNA analysis.
Because hellbenders are known to occur in the Greenbrier, this sample was meant to serve as a positive control to which Maddy, Lisa, and their colleagues could compare samples from the Cheat, a separate watershed. For instance, they could look for differences in the number of samples that tested positive for hellbender DNA and compare water quality measurements. If we could successfully locate a hellbender at the site, then this sample could also help the scientists determine how close they need to be to an individual to get a positive result.
Along with determining whether hellbender DNA is present or absent from a site, eDNA tests provide information about the strength of that DNA signal. Specifically, DNA is extracted from each filter, then tested three times for genetic sequences unique to hellbenders. If only one of those three tests comes back positive, then there’s a weak signal for hellbender DNA. If all three come back positive, then there’s a strong signal, which suggests that the researchers either sampled close to a hellbender or there were several hellbenders present at the site. Alternatively, if a sample comes back negative, it doesn’t necessarily mean that a hellbender isn’t there, it just means that the researchers were unsuccessful at capturing hellbender DNA on their filter.
In 2020, eight of the 28 samples FOC collected came back positive for hellbender DNA. The following year, 27 of the 55 samples came back positive. While scientific studies suggest these salamanders prefer cold mountain streams, Maddy and her colleagues have detected tons of hellbender DNA in the Cheat, a warm-water river. “Seeing them in the Cheat is a slam dunk for our restoration efforts,” she said. “There were probably some reaches hellbenders were extirpated from based on how poor the water chemistry was, but seeing the data come back positive, especially in the lower Cheat, shows that they’re either back or held on long enough for us to turn things around.”
Maddy and Lisa will collect 30 eDNA samples over the following month. With the first samples successfully collected, Maddy once again donned her wet suit and snorkel gear to search for a hellbender in the shallow water. With her face in the river and flashlight in hand, Maddy gracefully moved up the stretch, carefully peering under rocks without disturbing them. I walked along the shore, matching her unhurried pace and taking photos.
I had no expectations of seeing a hellbender on this trip, or ever in my life, for that matter. After a few minutes, I walked back to chat with Lisa and Dylan, and prepared to move onto the next site. But Maddy was determined. She continued searching up the river, stabilizing herself as she dove into a region upstream with a stronger current. Then we heard the gleeful shout, “I found one!”
We grabbed our gear and rushed to meet her. She sat up, purple-lipped and shivering in the freezing water. I put on a snorkel mask and jumped in, my excitement overpowering the cold. “It’s kind of tough to spot,” Maddy said, pointing me toward the rock under which the hellbender was hiding. I dunked my head in, Maddy right beside me, shining the flashlight toward the hellbender’s home. Water flooded in through the top of my mask, blocking my vision and disrupting my breathing. I had to come up for air.
I tightened my mask, swept away my unruly hair, and tried again, but the only thing I saw was water inside my mask. The cold started creeping through my neoprene clothes as Maddy patiently sat by my side, shivering and smiling. Her snorkeling looked so effortless. It wasn’t until I tried to spot a hellbender myself that I realized how skilled she truly is at exploring the underwater realm. I scrambled to keep myself stable in the current and worried about displacing rocks. But now I was determined; I couldn’t let Maddy’s efforts be for naught. I dove down at least six more times, each time achieving the same result. Eventually, I gave up and decided to try another mask.
As I waded out of the water, Lisa took my place. Within just a moment of putting her head in the river, she spotted the hellbender’s slimy skin—her first hellbender sighting. Not long after, the chilly water sent her back to the sunlit shore. I ventured back into the river with a new mask suctioned to my face. Maddy was ready to guide me to the hellbender once again. It had ventured a little further out of its home, perhaps curious to see what all the commotion was about.
She handed me the flashlight as we dove down again. With an extra push toward the bottom of the river and water staying outside my mask, I finally saw the broad, speckled face of a hellbender and its small, glittering eyes staring at me. It was the most adorable, pebble-like creature I’ve ever seen. My childlike fascination with animals came flooding back as I screamed underwater with pure joy. Even though I knew the hellbender was there, I never considered what it would actually feel like to see one.
A minute later, I came up for air and gave Maddy a gigantic hug, thanking her for making this encounter possible. Maddy dove back down again to snap a photo with an underwater camera as I retreated to the bank. After at least an hour in the river, she returned to shore, and we all packed up to move on to the next sampling site.
During our drive to Shavers Fork, I bounced between feeling euphoric about seeing this majestic, ancient giant and feeling guilty that my excited scream scared it. I never meant to disturb a hellbender. The experience left me wondering about the impact I have when I venture into the homes of other beings. Was it right to impose upon an animal that has been in this river far longer and more permanently than I will ever be?
As scientists, we strive to understand the natural world and how our actions affect the species around us. We are supposed to be objective, and most of us are when it comes to designing experiments, collecting data, and analyzing results. But we also love the Earth and the amazing organisms that call it home. After all, this very attachment is often what inspires us to pursue science in the first place. Perhaps the best way to demonstrate that attachment is by listening to what the data tell us. Hellbenders grace our West Virginia rivers, but they’re also vulnerable to the profound pressures we place upon them. I’ll never forget that hellbender face, but when I truly listen to the data, I hear its one resounding message: some stones are best left unturned.
Nikki Forrester is co-publisher of Highland Outdoors and, like a hellbender, loves spending her summers searching for crayfish in the mountain streams of West Virginia.