From the "Montreat Minute" email from the Town of Montreat, Sept. 4, 2020:
Flat Creek Hellbender Salamander Update
Historically, Montreat has been blessed with such pristine stream water that we’ve enjoyed a small and elusive population of hellbender salamanders. Hellbenders are the largest amphibian found in the United States (up to 29” long) and one of only three giant species in the entire world (the other two are in China and Japan). Additionally, they are only found in a small geographic area in the United States, running in the Appalachians from upper Georgia into New York.
You’ve probably only seen a photo of a hellbender, as they are shy and elusive salamanders that have been present in our local waters for eons. As an “indicator” species, they are important because they reflect the water quality of streams and rivers. They are only found in clean, pristine waters, such as Flat Creek. As recent as 2017, hellbenders have been spotted and confirmed in Montreat. However, after the devastating effects of Tropical Storm Alberto in May 2018, hellbenders have not been seen in our Town. In the summer of 2019, Josh Holbrook, Asst. Professor of Environmental Science at Montreat College, and several students received a grant to study the hellbender population in Flat Creek. They placed 10 hellbender “huts”, or nesting boxes, in the creek from the Greybeard Trailhead down to Ole Guacamole’s Mexican Restaurant in Black Mountain. Additionally, they used snorkeling equipment to search for the giant salamanders. Unfortunately, by the end of the summer, no hellbenders had been found. However, in talking to people in Black Mountain, Josh heard first hand reports of hellbender sightings near Ole Guacamole’s, which was a significant encouragement. It was Josh’s supposition that the Alberto storm had washed the Montreat hellbenders down stream due to the significant flooding.
As a result of his findings and supposition, Josh partnered with NC Wildlife last fall to conduct DNA tests of the water to determine any presence of hellbender DNA. Three test samples were taken- two in Montreat and one at Ole Guacamole’s. The bad news: no hellbender DNA was found in Montreat’s Flat Creek waters. The good news: hellbender DNA was significantly present in the Ole Guacamole’s sample.
Where to from here? Josh plans on continuing the studies in Flat Creek, especially between Montreat and Ole Guacamole’s to determine how far upstream they are living. “It’s going to be an interesting long-term study,” Josh commented. “It’s part of the natural cycle of things. We have many questions to resolve, like will they move upstream again? Has their range changed and is it permanent?”
We hope at some point they will return to our cold, clear Flat Creek waters. And we appreciate Josh’s important work.