They’re the color of mud, and they can grow up to 2 feet long. People call them snot otters because they’re covered in a layer of slippery mucus. Or lasagna lizards, because the crinkly flap of skin on their sides that helps them absorb oxygen resembles a lasagna noodle.
Eastern hellbenders live throughout the Appalachian region in the United States. Their ancestors have been on earth for around 160 million years, but in the last several decades their numbers have dropped dangerously in several states, primarily due to habitat destruction. Eastern hellbenders are endangered in Maryland, Missouri, Ohio, Illinois and Indiana.
Frogs fall out of my mouth when I talk. Toads, too.
It used to be a problem.
There was an incident when I was young and cross and fed up with parental expectations. My sister, who is the Good One, has gold fall from her lips, and since I could not be her, I had to go a different way.
So I got frogs. It happens.
“You’ll grow into it,” the fairy godmother said. “Some curses have cloth-of-gold linings.” She considered this, and her finger drifted to her lower lip, the way it did when she was forgetting things. “Mind you, some curses just grind you down and leave you broken. Some blessings do that too, though. Hmm. What was I saying?”
I spent a lot of time not talking. I got a slate and wrote things down. It was hard at first, but I hated to drop the frogs in the middle of the road. They got hit by cars, or dried out, miles away from their damp little homes.
Toads were easier. Toads are tough. After awhile, I learned to feel when a word was a toad and not a frog. I could roll the word around on my tongue and get the flavor before I spoke it. Toad words were drier. Desiccated is a toad word. So is crisp and crisis and obligation. So are elegant and matchstick.
Frog words were a bit more varied. Murky. Purple. Swinging. Jazz.
I practiced in the field behind the house, speaking words over and over, sending small creatures hopping into the evening. I learned to speak some words as either toads or frogs. It’s all in the delivery.
Love is a frog word, if spoken earnestly, and a toad word if spoken sarcastically. Frogs are not good at sarcasm.
Toads are masters of it.
I learned one day that the amphibians are going extinct all over the world, that some of them are vanishing. You go to ponds that should be full of frogs and find them silent. There are a hundred things responsible—fungus and pesticides and acid rain.
When I heard this, I cried “What!?” so loudly that an adult African bullfrog fell from my lips and I had to catch it. It weighed as much as a small cat. I took it to the pet store and spun them a lie in writing about my cousin going off to college and leaving the frog behind.
I brooded about frogs for weeks after that, and then eventually, I decided to do something about it.
I cannot fix the things that kill them. It would take an army of fairy godmothers, and mine retired long ago. Now she goes on long cruises and spreads her wings out across the deck chairs.
But I can make more.
I had to get a field guide at first. It was a long process. Say a word and catch it, check the field marks. Most words turn to bronze frogs if I am not paying attention.
Poison arrow frogs make my lips go numb. I can only do a few of those a day. I go through a lot of chapstick.
It is a holding action I am fighting, nothing more. I go to vernal pools and whisper sonnets that turn into wood frogs. I say the words squeak and squill and spring peepers skitter away into the trees. They begin singing almost the moment they emerge.
I read long legal documents to a growing audience of Fowler’s toads, who blink their goggling eyes up at me. (I wish I could do salamanders. I would read Clive Barker novels aloud and seed the streams with efts and hellbenders. I would fly to Mexico and read love poems in another language to restore the axolotl. Alas, it’s frogs and toads and nothing more. We make do.)
The woods behind my house are full of singing. The neighbors either learn to love it or move away.
My sister—the one who speaks gold and diamonds—funds my travels. She speaks less than I do, but for me and my amphibian friends, she will vomit rubies and sapphires. I am grateful.
I am practicing reading modernist revolutionary poetry aloud. My accent is atrocious. Still, a day will come when the Panamanian golden frog will tumble from my lips, and I will catch it and hold it, and whatever word I spoke, I’ll say again and again, until I stand at the center of a sea of yellow skins, and make from my curse at last a cloth of gold.
Terri Windling posted recently about the old fairy tale of frogs falling from a girl’s lips, and I started thinking about what I’d do if that happened to me, and…well…
This serene creature is a hellbender [Cryptobranchus alleganiensis] a species of enormous North American salamander. They have existed for an estimated 65 million years. Apparently they’re known by some as water dogs and snot otters, due to their peculiar bodies and protective mucus. Image by
simplyjake on Flickr
Herpetologist Don Boyer inevitably drew attention when he drove into
town. People would notice his truck, with “Bronx Zoo” emblazoned across
the side, and want to know what he was doing in their corner of western
One glance at the creatures was unlikely to assuage nervous
onlookers. The Eastern hellbender, the largest salamander in the Western
Hemisphere, looks as though someone yanked out a giant’s esophagus,
gave it legs and taught it to swim. The two-foot-long amphibian has
slime-covered skin, beady eyes and a paddle-like tail. Its ruffled torso
resembles the edge of a lasagna noodle, inspiring one of the
creature’s many colorful nicknames, “old lasagna sides.” Other monikers
are equally undignified: “snot otter,” “mud devil,” “grampus.”
“They’re pretty odd-looking creatures,” Boyer acknowledged. “Nocturnal and aquatic and secretive and strange. … Otherwordly.”
they’re also threatened. Which is why scientists at the Bronx Zoo have
been working to raise the giant salamanders in captivity and then
reintroduce healthy adults into the wild…
Hellbenders are normally solitary animals with a fixed home range.
Once a hellbender has established a den, it will rarely leave it except to hunt or to find a mate. The territories of two animals may overlap, but the two hellbenders are never found in the same place at the same time; should they meet by chance, they will challenge each other. A larger animal will chase a smaller one away, but two equally matched hellbenders will engage in a vicious fight (see bottom image). And should one hellbender kill the other, they are not above cannibalism.
CAN YOU EVER ok so for right this second we’re gonna diverge from reptiles to talk about a salamander.
This is a hellbender salamander, or Cryptobranchus alleganiensis when she’s in trouble- and boy is she in trouble a lot. The hellbender is the only member of Cryptobranchus and only has one other genus in its family- Andrias, which is the genus of the giant Japanese and Chinese salamanders. Hellbenders are the largest salamander in North America and have fill both a predator and prey niche. They live east of the Mississippi River and can be found in New York, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Georgia, and Arkansas.
They have extremely demanding water requirements- they need fast-ish water because otherwise they won’t get enough oxygen. They have a unique respiratory ability- they take in dissolved oxygen in the water through their skin- and prey mostly on crayfish. Also, they are extremely flat. This allows them to move easily in the fast water. Other names for the hellbender include: snot otter, devil dog, mud dog, Allegheny alligator (that one’s my second-favorite), and grampus (that one’s my favorite).
The hellbender used to be common throughout the eastern United States, but you guessed it, people have once again ruined everything. Damn those dams- damming the waterways these guys live in and diverting the course of rivers has really taken a toll on their population. They’re in decline literally everywhere, and captive breeding has been extremely difficult. There are two subspecies- C. a. alleganiensis and C. a. bishopi. The bishopi are the Ozark subspecies, and there’s only about 590 of them left in the White River and Spring River systems of southern Missouri and northern Arkansas. Ore mining, sedimentation in the rivers, loss of water quality, and collection for the pet trade have taken a huge toll, as well as the fungal disease chytridiomycosis. Chytridiomycosis is present in all Ozark populations and is devastating. It is also present in some captive populations; at one point, it wiped out 75% of the St. Louis Zoo’s captive collection, which was a huge problem because St. Louis Zoo is one of the facilities that has figured out how to breed them.
Hellbenders are really important to their river systems. Like any amphibian, they’re an important indicator species- when something goes wrong with their populations, it’s a sign that something is wrong with the river. Captive breeding efforts and egg collecting and nurturing with release at a less vulnerable stage have been slow to get going (these critters mature slowly!), but for now at least alleganiensis seems to be ok. However, the Ozark subspecies won’t be without help. If you want to help the hellbender, you can report sightings of them here or have a look at Purdue Extension’s “Help the Hellbender project. If you live in the Ozark Hellbender’s range, you can report sightings of it here.