Wineka column: Hellbender contorts his way to new home at Dan Nicholas Park

  • Posted: Wednesday, May 22, 2013 1:17 a.m.
    UPDATED: Wednesday, May 22, 2013 1:18 a.m.
JON C. LAKEY Dan Nicholas Park recently added an adult hellbender salamander to the indoor exhibit area at the Rowan Wildlife Adventures.
JON C. LAKEY Dan Nicholas Park recently added an adult hellbender salamander to the indoor exhibit area at the Rowan Wildlife Adventures.

SALISBURY — So here it is, the answer to that nagging question:

What rock did you crawl out from under?

A hellbender is the newest resident at Dan Nicholas Park’s Nature Center. Hellbenders are salamanders, and they are among the largest salamanders in the world and the biggest in North America.

The hellbender at Dan Nick spends most of his — or her — time under a big, flat rock Mike Lambert has set up in the corner of a 200-gallon tank.

Finding a rock to slide under is generally what hellbenders do. The cover helps in their feeding on menu items such as minnows and crawfish.

“It is an ambush predator,” says Lambert, assistant naturalist at the Nature Center and an N.C certified environmental educator.

Lambert transferred the Nature Center’s two American alligators to provide a tank for the hellbender, which arrived May 7. In the tank, the water temperature can be kept at 65 degrees, optimum for the hellbender.

This particular Eastern hellbender is originally from the Watauga River near Boone, but for the past 18 to 20 years it had resided in a much smaller tank in the office of a professor at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa.

Lambert says Dr. David Cundall and his family personally delivered the hellbender to the park.

John Groves of the N.C. Zoo in Asheboro is an adviser for a hellbender breeding project being developed in North Carolina, and he helped make the connection between Cundall and Dan Nicholas Park, where Lambert had been wanting to add a hellbender to the Nature Center exhibits for more than a year.

Lambert has purposely tried not to handle the hellbender much since it changed homes.

“We want him to get settled in,” he says.

Lambert judges the hellbender to be 18 to 20 inches long, He calls it “handsome” out of respect for its black-gray and maybe even some rose-specked markings. “He’s quite a handsome fella,” Lambert says.

But that’s not an official name, which Lambert has avoided because he isn’t even sure of the hellbender’s gender.

“He” will have to do for now.

“He’s got little, beady eyes,” Lambert notes, not to mention a paddle tail. When he moves in the water, you see how the hellbender got his name. His body contorts likes a curvy mountain road.

Lambert used tongs and fed the hellbender some crawfish for the first time Monday. The hellbender gobbled up the crawfish as though they were a delicacy.

Then it was back to the lying under the rock. Visitors to the exhibit will have to know where to look.

“As soon as I put that rock back in, he’s going to be under it,” Lambert says.

In the wild, hellbenders face two big threats: siltation — the clogging up of their freshwater streams and rivers — and fishermen, who believe falsely they are evil destroyers of fish populations.

“They end up killing them because they believe in the myths,” Lambert says.

The hellbender is a protected species, and Lambert has to monitor its length, weight and overall health. The Dan Nicholas hellbender has the potential to grow some more. The record size is 29 inches, and the longest any hellbender has lived in captivity is 30 years, Lambert says.

Back in February 2012, Lambert spoke with Dr. Jeff Humphries, who is a Piedmont-coastal wildlife diversity biologist for the state and an expert on the research and conservation efforts related to hellbenders.

Humphries has set up a website dedicated to hellbenders (

Lambert was wanting to bring at least one juvenile (2 years old) hellbender, maybe more, to the Nature Center, and Humphries put him in contact with Lori Williams, the state’s mountain wildlife diversity biologist.

Williams led Lambert to Groves, an expert in the husbandry of native hellbenders.

Groves visited the park in March 2012 to see whether the Nature Center could be set up for juvenile hellbenders that were part of the breeding project.

But the park learned in December 2012 the breeding program had hit a snag, and juvenile hellbenders would not be available. Meanwhile, the staff learned of the adult hellbender at Lehigh University that would be needing a new home.

In the end, Lambert said, the bigger adult makes for a better exhibit at the Nature Center because he’s more likely to be seen.

But if you go, be sure to look under the rock first.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or

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