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Airdate: Apr 16, 2018
Scientist: Bill Hopkins


North America's largest salamander can reach a length of two feet and weigh up to five pounds.


Ambience, Stream
Picture a man in a wetsuit, mask and snorkel in the middle of a fast running stream. He bends over groping around in the water for several minutes and then suddenly he stands up and in his hands is a Hellbender. I'm Jim Metzner and this is the Pulse of the Planet.

Hopkins: We got one, alright! Today's a good day. We just looked up under a rock and found the largest salamander in North America. This is the Eastern Hellbender. It is a fantastic animal.

Bill Hopkins is an associate professor of fish and wildlife conservation at Virginia Tech.

Hopkins: It's a small adult female, maybe 10 - 12 years old. She probably weighs about half a pound or so -- a little over a foot long but they'll actually grow up to a couple feet in length and get much, much fatter than this. So, you can get an individual that's three or four times this size around so, a real big, heavy-bodied animal.

It's a fully aquatic salamander. So, these guys spend their entire life in the water. They have lungs, but they breathe predominantly across the skin. You can see that this individual has these skin flaps along the sides, which help to increase surface area. And so, basically, it improves their gas exchange across the skin. One of the main things that allows them to live a fully aquatic existence and breathe through their skin is the fact that they live and they specialize in these cold mountain streams, predominantly. So, they live in these well-oxygenated habitats - prime trout streams. Well, many times, they're often very special habitat for hellbenders as well.

We'll hear more about Hellbenders in future programs. Pulse of the Planet is made possible in part by the National Science Foundation. I'm Jim Metzner.