Peering through the tank’s glass wall, Cassandra Elias scanned the stacked rocks for any movement.
“There’s a tail and there’s another tail,” the live animal manager at the Cook Museum of Natural Science said excitedly, pointing at the bottom of the tank. “And over in the corner is the face. They are so ugly, but also super cool.”
Triggering Elias' excitement were flat, blotchy brown, slimy, beady-eyed amphibians that spend most of their life under rocks.
Meet the hellbender — also nicknamed the snot otter, lasagna lizard, mud puppy and Allegheny alligator.
“These guys are crazy," said Scott Mayo, director of the Cook Museum. "They are one of the the largest salamanders in north Alabama. The size is really amazing. When you think of an amphibian, you think small, you think tree frogs. These guys can grow over two feet long. As cool as that is, there’s a touch of sadness because there are so few of them left.”
The International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species classifies the hellbender as near threatened.
Due to their decreased numbers and their elusiveness — living beneath rocks, blending into their environments and hunting at night — scientists previously thought hellbenders no longer existed in Alabama. But, thanks to 21st century science, tests of water samples from Alabama creeks and streams revealed environmental DNA, including mucus, skin and feces, from hellbenders.
Those tests served as a map for teams of scientists, including Jim Godwin, an aquatic zoologist with the Auburn University Museum of Natural History’s Alabama Natural Heritage Program. Teams led by Godwin found an Eastern hellbender in the Flint River in 2015 and one in a creek south of Montgomery in 2016.
“Most amphibians aren’t on the conservation status, despite the fact they should be,” Elias said. “Their numbers have gone down dramatically in the last 50 years. Hellbenders were just recently found again in Alabama.”
Mayo described the hellbenders as an indicator species.
“They are the canary in the coal mines for the wetlands, because they breathe through their skin, so anything in the water also gets in them,” Mayo said.
Researchers and scientists attributed the dwindling numbers of hellbenders to decreased water quality due to an increase of pollutants and silt caused by construction, dams and farming.
“Being an amphibian, they need really good water quality," Elias said. "Their habitat is being taken away. The cool flowing streams in Alabama they call home are a little bit warmer than they used to be."
Mayo elaborated: “If something happens to the stream or creek they are living in, it’s done. They don’t get to pack up and go to another one that fits them better."
To increase the public’s knowledge of hellbenders and their precarious future, the Cook Museum applied for a permit to house the amphibians.
In October, the museum received three Eastern hellbenders from the Fort Worth Zoo in Texas. Two subspecies of hellbenders exist — the Ozark hellbender, found in Arkansas and Missouri, and the Eastern hellbender, found in high-flowing cold streams from Alabama to New York.
After examining them to ensure they were acting properly and eating a steady diet of shrimp, krill, mice, minnows and blood worms, the museum placed two of the three hellbenders on display Jan. 7.
“Once they got in there, they were gone because that’s what they want to do,” Mayo said. “We spent three weeks in the terrarium wiggling the rocks around so that the hellbenders felt comfortable and people could still see them.”
On Saturday, the museum will spotlight the hellbenders during “Alabama’s Amazing Amphibians Fun Day.” Along with the amphibians, the event will focus on reptiles threatened in the wild, which the museum currently has on display — diamondback terrapins, Mexican alligator lizard and eastern indigo snake.
Listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as vulnerable, diamondback terrapins face threats of loss of habitat and predators rummaging through the nests. To aid the conservation effort, the University of Alabama in Birmingham pulls eggs every year, raises the reptiles and re-release them in the wild. The Cook Museum worked with UAB to house three of those terrapins.
The Mexican alligator lizard, described by Elias as “super cool,” is in a unique position. While common in the pet trade, the lizards are endangered in the wild.
“That’s a pretty crazy situation. People see them all the time, but only as pets. They live in the cloud forest of Mexico where there is a problem with deforestation,” Elias said.
Like the Mexican alligator lizard, the eastern indigo snake, which is native to the Southeast’s longleaf pine forest, is suffering from deforestation as well as urbanization.
“Now is the time for us to slow down, take a breath and realize what we have now that we may not have in the future. We need to make changes,” Mayo said.
The “Alabama’s Amazing Amphibians Fun Day” event, from 10 a.m.-3 p.m., will feature animal presentations and activities, story time and feeding of the hellbenders at 10:30 a.m. Education manager Jennifer Densmore said guests will learn about different frog calls, learn how frogs jump and swim, see a model of an adult hellbender and play games. Admission is $20 for ages 15 and older, $15 for ages 3-15 and free for ages 2 and younger and members.