Save the Snot Otter

Article Published: Dec. 29, 2011 | Modified: Dec. 29, 2011
Save the Snot Otter

Since hellbenders thrive in clear, cool water, they’re a natural indicator of a waterway’s health.

Photo by Frank Ruggiero

Friends of the High Country State Parks, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the promotion and preservation of N.C. State Parks and Natural Areas in the High Country, is assisting efforts to protect the eastern hellbender, also known as the “snot otter” due to its slimy texture, in the New River.

The organization recently presented a Christmas gift of research equipment to New River State Park for use in its research work on the hellbender.

The hellbender is a large salamander that lives in the New River. It is listed as a species of “special concern” in North Carolina, needing clean, clear, and cold water to survive.

In that respect, hellbenders’ presence in a river is a reliable indicator of river health, as the health of the river is in direct correlation with the health of the hellbender population.

Problems affecting the health of this unique resident of the New River include soil erosion, warming water temperatures, deaths caused by misinformed anglers and possibly endocrine disrupters (a type of pollution).

Soil erosion, finding its way to the river, smothers hellbender eggs and makes it difficult for young hellbenders to breathe.

Warm waters, caused by fewer overhanging shade trees, support less dissolved oxygen.

Some fishermen, unaware that snot otters are both harmless to humans and fish populations, kill the harmless animal.

Then, there are the ever-present endocrine disrupters – toxins believed to be responsible for some problems facing hellbenders and other amphibians, such as frogs and toads.

New River State Park conducts an annual hellbender inventory each week in July. The park teams up with N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, State Park inventory biologists, the N.C. Zoo at Asheboro and volunteers. Recent findings include healthy adult animals, but biologists have concerns because few young specimens are being located. Hellbenders can live 30 years and reach a length of 29 inches.

By monitoring these giant salamanders, biologists are able to gage the health of the river, which also affects humans, whether we enjoy fishing, swimming or floating the New River, or drinking a clean glass of water.

For the past six years, researchers have been tagging animals to monitor populations.

How does one catch a slimy snot otter? By hand. Once the harmless hellbender is secured, a small PIT (passive integrated transponder) tag is inserted into the individual, much like some those used on pets for identification purposes.

The use of PIT tags provides valuable data, such as size, age and growth of each individual hellbender over its live span. Friends of the High Country State Parks has provided equipment that enables researchers to continue to monitor this special animal. Among the items are PIT tags, PIT tag readers and a Peavey lift to help lift heavy rocks and logs, scales and measuring calipers.

According to New River State Park officials, “The intensive and physically demanding work of conducting surveys, catching hellbenders, tagging them and monitoring their status has been difficult. In the past, tools and equipment had to be borrowed from other agencies, and volunteers were lacking.

“But through this crucial assistance from Friends of High Country State Parks, it is much less difficult to monitor the eastern hellbenders, especially during these difficult times for state budgets. It is important to continue this ongoing work, follow up on findings, and reach important conclusions.

Educating and promoting the conservation of the hellbender and therefore a healthy river leads to a healthy environment and community.”

For more information, search Friends of High Country State Parks on Facebook or visit

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