How is it possible to grow up playing in the woods and streams of northwestern PA and not learn about hellbenders until you've gone away and done grown-up things and then come back to settle where your roots are deepest? I certainly knew about mudpuppies--the hellbender's smaller, frilly-gilled relative--but if it weren't for my friend Lainard (a gifted artist--visit him at lainardbush.com) I might never have had my life enriched by these fascinating giant salamanders. I became immediately entranced by these strange and otherworldly creatures and felt compelled to learn more about them.
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.
Because I make soft sculpture creatures and am especially drawn to the mythological and cryptozoological, there was no question that I needed to figure out how to make a fabric hellbender. A hellbender that could be hugged. A hellbender devoid of the clear slimy substance they exude when stressed (for instance, when being handled by humans).
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:
Which part is hellbender and which part is rock? How "tall" is this creature? Is its body flat or round? Is that a ridge or a divot along it's back? I really couldn't figure out the tail at all, so I made some wild guesses. Naturally, I didn't end up with a creature that looked very much like a hellbender. Sorry about that, Lainard. (He received Hellbender 1.0 as a gift.)
Then I started playing around with patterned fleeces that had an underwatery look to them. Quite a few hellbenders came out of my workshop with a funky tail and pointy heads. Sorry to whoever bought them. At some point I saw some more images that helped me grasp details about the tail, so I made a few more adjustments to my pattern.
Fortuitously, a hellbender researcher discovered my hellbenders through my Etsy shop--The Wee Beasties--and ordered some. Thus my world (my hellbender cottage industry world, that is) was blown open, and some great opportunities came along. This particular researcher is working on her doctorate at Buffalo State and had some kind words to say about my plush hellbenders; namely, that they actually looked like hellbenders. I learned that the Buffalo Zoo has a hellbender nursery and for several years has been raising hellbenders from eggs to release them into both the Allegheny and Susquehanna Rivers. The populations are being monitored for health and reproduction success, with summer field work teams measuring and microchipping hellbenders in key areas. I was invited to visit the Buffalo Zoo and have a behind the scenes tour of the hellbender nursery, and this was a fantastic experience on a variety of levels. Huge aquariums house small groups of young hellbenders. The aquariums are furnished with large flat river rocks and upside down halves of PVC pipe, providing cozy hidey-holes for the hellbenders. I got to hold a hellbender and look at hellbenders from every possible angle. Robin Foster, my Buffalo State contact, and the zoo's herpetology staff were incredibly welcoming and patient with my questions. I think we are all more than a little in love with hellbenders, so it was like meeting fellow members of a very unique club.
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.
Just previous to my terribly exciting and enlightening visit to the Buffalo Zoo (truly, it was a wonderful day), I learned from Robin that the researchers, the Zoo, and regional watershed conservation groups were interested in having a hellbender costume to use at educational events. When I mentioned persecution earlier on in this post, I wasn't exaggerating. Hellbenders, thanks to old wives' tales, have been indiscriminately killed for years due to false perceptions. Anglers have seen them as competition. They are not. Everyone and their mother thought they were poisonous or would bite your fingers off. They are not and would not, although what little ridges they have for dentition could probably bruise you if they had the chance to clamp down on your digits. On top of this, hellbender populations seem to have difficulty maturing these days. They thrive in fresh water. Polluted waterways remain a problem. There are obviously a few different issues that could be pinpointed by a "Hug a Hellbender" PR campaign.
Time for a friendly, huggable, larger than life mascot!
Coming next: Part II -- The Costume