Here are a few astounding facts about hellbenders:
--They are the third largest salamander in the world, exceeded only in size by the Japanese Giant Salamander and the Chinese Giant Salamander, yet they are native to the Appalachians.
--They have remained unchanged for 65 million years. Obviously they've got something figured out.
--They can live as long as 50 years and grow up to 30 inches long.
--They are not poisonous, dangerous, aggressive or spawned from Hell.
--They have been heavily persecuted by fishermen. However, they do not compete with anglers for prize catches. They prefer crayfish.
--They are a fresh water indicator species, and they're not doing so well these days. Surprise, surprise.
--They are very shy and prefer to spend daylight hours hiding under large flat rocks in swiftly moving streams and rivers.
For visual reference, here are the Chinese and Japanese Giant Salamanders. Enormous.
I make my own patterns for my fabric creations, and this involves a throw-caution-to-the-wind combination of guesswork, trial and error, mental calculation and visualization. I break down the parts that are needed to create a three dimensional piece and sketch templates on scrap paper. I've been doing this for a long time, both with theatrical costuming and soft sculpture, so generally prototypes are not total disasters. Little did I know how much you can NOT know about a hellbender and how it really looks until you hold one in your surgical-gloved hands. (More on that experience later.)
I created my first pattern based on photos like this:
For a quick excursion to learn more about hellbender research at the Buffalo Zoo...
I learned a tremendous amount during that visit, including the fact that I had the head and eyes of my plush hellbenders all wrong, as well as the distinct silhouette of the tail and the fact that each toe is tipped by what looks like a little white ball. The head is squarish and the eyes are tiny and yellowish. Uh-oh. It was time for another redesign and I also had to add a chunk of hand-sewing time to the creation of each plush hellbender. I also revisited the fabric I was using. I could no longer find the fleece patterns I had originally used, and after seeing hellbenders up close and in the flesh, I thought that a faux microsuede would be best for capturing the distinct chocolate brown color and shininess of a hellbender's skin. Hellbenders are distinctly wrinkly, with wavy "lasagna folds" along their sides. Though they do have vestigial lungs, they breathe primarily through their skin and this extra surface area gives them more "breathing room". Hellbender 3.0 isn't as wrinkly as I'd like, but I do have a suggestion of skin flaps along the sides.
Time for a friendly, huggable, larger than life mascot!