Monday, June 01, 2009

Mysterious Ozarks

Spring River
Fulton County, Arkansas
Photo by Stan Trauth
(Image from Ozark Hellbender)

The image above is of a local critter whose name I was loath to pronounce back in my youth, but I've since gotten over that inhibition and now take joy in speaking loudly of the notorious HELLBENDER.

What a name!

Apparently, nobody knows the etymology for certain. According to Wikipedia, the Missouri Department of Conservation speculates:
The name "hellbender" probably comes from the animal's odd look. Perhaps it was named by settlers who thought "it was a creature from hell where it's bent on returning." Another rendition says the undulating skin of a hellbender reminded observers of "horrible tortures of the infernal regions." In reality, it's a harmless aquatic salamander.
I doubt that "bender" comes from "bent on" . . . but the name certainly stumps me. One reader who knows that I hail from the Ozarks sent me some information on these critters, which are sometimes found in Ozark 'fens', it seems, and that led to a discussion of what a fen is. I suggested "swamp," and the reader replied:
As to "fens" -- best I can tell is that you are mostly correct, kinda like a wetland. I did get in phone contact with somebody at Arkansas Geological Survey [AGS] and found that "fens" are really a spring-fed area, not usually a large area, an exception being the "hellbender" of Spring River from the spring itself to just toward Hardy. The range being now, apparently from about the spring itself to about 7 miles down-river. Hellbenders used to be found near Black Rock.
I presume what my interlocutor meant was a stretch of the Spring River known as a 'hellbender region', but I'm not sure of the actual length from this description. I can't imagine a fen extending for the length of this fifty-seven-mile river -- or for the seventeen miles to Hardy, or even for just seven miles -- so I may have to leave this unexplained unless the reader clarifies the point. Meantime, the anonymous individual provided some further information:
The "Old Folk," if they found a hellbender in their "spring-fed pool," knew they had good, pure water and that that place was a great place to build a cabin and settle.

The female with AGS I spoke with had an "opinion." I had asked, "How the hell was having a 'hellbender' present considered a good place to live?" (Methodists and Baptists you know -- well maybe Presbyterians too.) Anyway, her opinion was that the women who did the clothes washing named the creature. Her opinion.
I'm also puzzled about the lady's opinion. Did she mean that the Ozark women considered their washing lives hell? In an Ozark paradise? God forbid! But I suppose that there's always a snake in the grass, and as we know from Milton, hell is wherever Satan happens to be: "Which way I flie is Hell; my self am Hell" (Paradise Lost 4.75). But let's return to the words of the unknown but faithful reader, who has perused Gypsy Scholar enough to know even of Uncle Cran:

Maybe your Uncle Cran can give a picture of a twenty-two foot man eating hellbender -- but then again, were a twenty-two foot man-eating hellbender around, I can't see any man building a cabin. Even if, he had a woman nearby. Your Uncle Cran excluded.
I think that I've seen only the very young hellbenders, no larger than my little finger, but Uncle Cran can let us know if he's seen any of the really big ones. I don't think that they reach twenty-two feet, but I've heard claims that the critters can reach lengths up to two-and-one-half feet. Confirmation, please.

The anonymous reader also provided a link to an Ozark Partnership with the United States Geological Survey, and this site has some exceedingly fascinating information:
The Ozarks include much of southern Missouri and northern Arkansas and small portions of Illinois, Kansas and Oklahoma. The area consists of the Ozark Highlands to the north and the the Boston Mountains to the southwest. The Boston Mountains are the highest and most rugged portion of the Ozarks. A quarter billion years of years of erosion and weathering have resulted in a thoroughly dissected plateau with landform diversity ranging from rolling plains to deeply dissected hills and valleys. Subterranean dissolution of carbonate bedrock has resulted in dominant karst features with many streams losing water to underground passages and others fed by springs and seepage, often from areas beyond the surface watershed.

The Ozarks are one of the oldest continually exposed landscapes on earth. The high, gently rolling plains once supported prairies, savannahs and open woodlands; the dissected hills and valleys supported oak and oak-pine woodlands and forest interspersed with glades, fens, springs, caves and cliffs harboring many unique species. Plants and animals have had over 200 million years to adapt to the rugged landscape or take refuge from continental climate change. Geographic isolation, topographic relief, and karst geology have resulted in remarkable biodiversity in the Ozarks. Over 200 species are largely restricted to the Ozarks, of which approximately 160 species occur nowhere else in the world. More than 100 fish species live in Ozarks streams, including 56 species and subspecies that are restricted to, or have very limited distribution outside of the Ozarks. Overall, the Ozarks provide habitat for nearly two-thirds of the threatened and endangered species in Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Illinois.
Similar remarks are offered on the site's homepage:
Ozark biodiversity is due in part to the age of the landscape. Nearly a quarter billion years of erosion and weathering have resulted in a thoroughly dissected plateau of remarkable geologic, topographic and hydrologic diversity. Subterranean dissolution of carbonate bedrock has formed world-renowned karst features of springs, sinkholes and caves. The Ozarks have continuously supported plant and animal life for 225 million years; perhaps longer than any other region in the United States. No glaciers or oceans covered the Ozarks during this time, providing opportunity for species to diversify. During glacial maxima, the Ozarks provided refuge for plant and animal species displaced from more northern latitudes. Isolated populations of some of these species survive today in caves, springs and other isolated damp, cool areas. Over 200 species are largely restricted to the Ozarks; of these, approximately 160 species occur nowhere else in the world.
Growing up in this region, I always felt that it was a deeply mysterious place, and I now know why -- it's an isolated but very old and richly diverse area, ever unexpectedly surprising in what it offers.

For more information on the Ozarks, see Wikipedia's site (with links), this touristy site (with videos), this National Park Service site (on history and culture), this other National Park Service site (on nature and science), yet another National Park Service site (on scenic rivers), or this National Geographic site (with photos).



At 7:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As to the size of the hellbender, I've never heard of a twenty-two footer either. I think your guesstimate is about right.

I knew of a fellow who was studying for a degree prior to a career in medicine. He told stories of capturing the creatures in the "immediate" environs of the Spring itself. I'd "guess" that had to be in the early 50's so I don't "think" the Nat'l Park Service Rangers'll be after him.

Anyway, I seem to recall his description of "a bit over three feet in length."

More recently, I was speaking to someone about (paraphrasing here) "Man, I don't know what it was, but when I hauled it over the side of the boat ol' _____ bout went in the water. One dangerously ugly looking" uh "... so and so."

Anyway from his description I figured it had to be a hellbender. The person figured it to be "about two feet long." I asked what became of the creature (knowing it to be rare - I've never seen one - and I used to spend quite a bit of time on that stream) anyway he said (paraphrasing again)

"You think I was gonna let somethin that ________ ugly and _______ live?"

I took that to mean the poor rare hellbender didn't fare well.


At 7:43 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

JK, thanks for the report. If Ozark hellbenders can grow to over three feet long, they rival their Chinese cousin, which reaches up to five feet.

I wonder if "hellbender" has some connection to old beliefs about salamanders. They were believed impervious to fire, able to live in flames, and therefore somehow linked to the devil. But I'm just guessing. Anybody know the etymology?

I wonder if Daddio al-Ozarka has seen any of these critters.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:51 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry to disappoint my readers. I have seen various creatures we called salamanders, and water dogs, but I don't know if I ever saw a hellbender. These creatures were only a few inches long, nothing more than 4 or 5 inches.
Maybe someone who reads this can enlighten us.

At 10:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well Cran, since you've not seen a hellbender but you have seen a water dog - will a water dog "play fetch" or come when one calls?


At 11:08 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Uncle Cran, from what I've read, the hellbender starts out small, so you might have seen a young one. Have you heard of hellbenders?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:10 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

JK (and Cran), the "water dog" might be another name for the hellbender, for I've seen the hellbender referred to as "mud puppy."

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:45 PM, Blogger N.E. Brigand said...

For herpetologists, the common names "hellbender" and "mudpuppy" refer to two different animals, though they certainly may overlap in popular nomenclature. The Hellbender is Cryptobranchus alleganiensis, which has two subspecies, the type version in the Appalachians, and the more spotted Ozark Hellbender (C. a. bishopi) you are discussing. It is the largest American salamander by weight and worldwide is smaller only than the two Asian members of the same heavy-bodied family, the Chinese and Japanese Giant Salamaders. However, as the Hellbender's maximum recorded length is 29 inches (though normally they are about 18 inches long), there are two longer American salamanders, both eel-shaped, the Greater Siren (Siren lacertina), and the Two-toed Amphiuma, or "conger-eel" (Amphiuma means), which have attained lengths of 36 and 45 inches, respectively.

There are five species of "mudpuppies", also called "water dogs", all North American salamanders with external gills, (plus a cave-dwelling European member of the same family, the Olm). The largest species, the (Common) Mudpuppy (Necturus maculosus) is normally about 12 inches long, but has been recorded at lengths of more than 18 inches. This species, like the Hellbender, is found in Arkansas.

At 3:14 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, N. E. Brigand, for the additional, scientific information.

Jeffery Hodges

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