Typically when most folks think of the word “amphibian,” they think of either big bullfrogs “jug’o rumming” the night away on steamy summer evenings in the South or brilliantly-colored dart frogs bounding along unknown trails of dark tropical rain forests. It’s easy to see why – there are over 5,000 species of frog, after all! However, unless you’re of a certain ilk, you don’t often think “salamander.” While we maintain a wonderful array of native and tropical frog species here at Zoo Atlanta, we also have a diverse group of native U.S. species of salamanders. Some of these fascinating critters can be seen on exhibit in the World of Reptiles. Some, like the hellbender
also known variously as Mollyhugger, Grumpus and my personal favorite….
They may be hard to see at times, but are incredible marvels that call the north Georgia mountains home (along with other parts of the eastern United States). Regarded as North America’s largest amphibian, these salamanders can reach lengths over two feet, although the three we currently have on exhibit top out at a “modest” 12 inches.
If you look closely among the rocks of their stream exhibit, you may notice some weird things about these giant salamanders. For one, their skin looks very wrinkly
(which gives them another fun local name … the Lasagna Lizard).
There is a reason behind those wrinkles! Hellbenders use the increased skin surface those wrinkles provide to help them absorb more oxygen. The waters they occupy in the streams of north Georgia are very cool (dip a toe before jumping in, trust me!) and highly oxygenated. Also, you’ll notice that they are pretty flat, especially their heads. That helps these slippery creatures not only squeeze under large rocks, but also allows them to walk against the quick flow of the streams they live in by creating very little drag.
Many legends surround these harmless “river monsters,” but they are completely benign members of the mountain ecosystem. Their wild diet includes crayfish, other underwater invertebrates, tiny fish and the odd smaller salamander. Our hellbenders at the Zoo enjoy fish, crayfish, and earthworms.
Hellbenders are among our most imperiled amphibians. In fact, the ones you see on exhibit at the Zoo were captive-raised in an effort by biologists from the state of New York and the Buffalo Zoo to re-introduce populations into parts of that state where they were once plentiful. We hope their efforts pay off and that you enjoy visiting these amphibian ambassadors at Zoo Atlanta!