When I saw this picture, I was struck at how utterly alien it looked and at the same time, how bizarrely human it looked too. This appendage belongs not to an extra-terrestrial or some computer-generated creation but to a completely natural creature that shares this planet with us. Yet through photography it can still be revealed to be absolutely strange. What is this animal that is so unearthly-looking yet, in the grand scheme of the universe, shares anatomy strikingly similar to ours?
Hellbenders are the largest amphibians in North America, and the third largest salamanders in the world. Sadly, they are also one of the fastest declining salamanders found in the Appalachians, an ecosystem renowned for its salamander diversity.
This decline is due in large part to habitat destruction. Hellbenders require cool, clean, flowing bodies of water rich in oxygen to survive. Though they have lungs, they absorb most of their oxygen directly through their skin via specialized capillaries. They also hunt crayfish and other invertebrate prey and lay their eggs on the rocky bottoms of these bodies of water. All of this makes hellbenders very sensitive to sedimentation and water pollution from development, mining and agriculture, all of which are putting these stunning animals at risk.
Both at Animal Planet and at the National Wildlife Federation, we believe in the power of the captured image -- whether it's still or moving -- to inspire people to protect our fellow living creatures and the planet on which we all depend. This photo is a perfect example of that power.
Submit your own wildlife and nature photos to National Wildlife magazine's 41st annual photo contest and, like Joe Milmoe, you can use your images as a tool for conservation. You can find out more about hellbenders and other salamanders of the Appalachians by joining the Appalachian Salamander group on Facebook.
Photo by Joe Milmoe, used with permission.