Neuse River waterdog. Photo Courtesy of Melissa McGaw, N.C. WRC

When herpetologist Alvin Braswell first went out searching for Neuse River waterdogs as a young man in the 1960s, he’d set traps in Raleigh’s Crabtree Creek and pull out the slimy, brown, and polka-dotted salamanders, watching with intrigue as their bright red gills fluttered about their necks like a feather boa in water and their comically small legs floated alongside their snakelike torsos. 

The critters, which can grow to nearly a foot long, are found only in North Carolina’s Neuse and Tar Rivers. They were common back then, often seen nestled within the rocks, sticks, and leaves that make up the substream of rivers and tributaries. But in the last 50 years, the area around Crabtree Creek and Capital Boulevard has filled in with shopping plazas and housing subdivisions all connected by dense impervious roadways. 

During that time, the population of the metro area has exploded by a factor of 10—the 150,000 living here when Braswell first dropped traps has climbed to nearly 1.5 million. Development has followed the growth, sprawling farther and farther out from the city as the population increases faster than anywhere else in the state. 

These days, you’d be unlikely to find a waterdog lurking anywhere in Wake County, and you’d have a hard time finding any in the Neuse River proper. 

That should be a cause for concern: waterdogs, like most amphibians, are considered indicator species, meaning they are sensitive to changes in the environment and when disruption occurs are often the first species to disappear.

In June, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated the Neuse River waterdog as a threatened species, bestowing added protections along the 257 miles of waterways that comprise its main habitat. 

“The waterdog is a good indicator organism of the health of the streams that they live in,” Braswell, now 73, told me over the phone recently. “If their populations are in reasonably good shape it gives you a feel that the stream is in pretty good shape.”

Braswell, a native of Union County and former deputy director for the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, has a thick southern drawl. After he completed his degree at North Carolina State University, Braswell conducted his first formal study of the waterdog in the late seventies and early eighties with fellow herpetologist Ray Ashton. At the time, they determined waterdog populations were stable enough not to warrant a federal protection designation.

Three decades later, N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission herpetologist Jeff Humphries returned to the rivers and streams that Braswell studied. Using the same methodology over a five-year study, Humphries and his team found the population had declined by roughly 35 percent since the 1970s. 

“There are places where populations have been hit harder than others,” Humphries says. “Places where upstream there’s a lot more urbanization, that’s where you see the greatest declines.” 

NCSU graduate student Eric Teitsworth is now the third generation of scientists to pick up the study. He’s trawled more than 131 locations searching for waterdogs. The point of the study is partly to revisit habitats that historically have been home to waterdogs to determine if they are no longer there. 

On a sunny autumn afternoon, I joined Teitsworth and Humphries on a search for waterdogs along the Little River, a tributary of the Neuse. The spot is about 45 minutes away from Raleigh near Selma, and heading south on Route 70 you can see developers downing trees and flattening land in preparation for construction on the roadside.

We meet off a remote road and hike through dense wild oat grass and the purple petals of invasive smartweed, passing under the canopy of a large bald cypress tree, whose brilliant orange leaves are just starting to coat the forest floor. 

Teitsworth has laid about 40 traps up and down the sparkling calm river, and as we walk along the bank, he pulls up baited cage after cage, empty, save perhaps a small fish or crustacean.

While his study is far from complete, Teitsworth explains he’s starting to see a pattern. 

When a river is surrounded by impervious surfaces—say, a Walmart parking lot nearby—the rainwater that would normally slowly soak into the ground and eventually find its way to the river instead runs off the pavement directly into the channel. The rapid influx increases the flow of the water, either sweeping away the sticks and leaves below the surface or burying them in silt, creating a homogeneous river bottom of loose sand. 

Waterdogs don’t like that. They are shy creatures. You won’t find them basking in the sun on the riverbank or even hanging out atop a log. They spend their time lurking in the darkness of the substream floor. Although waterdogs have legs and can crawl along the bottom, they also have  tails, like a rudder, to help them glide easily into the best hiding places and away from predators. The salamanders are nocturnal and come out in the dark hours mainly to feast on snails, insects, and crayfish. Once fed, they use their large, flat heads, like a shovel, to scoop up the corner of a leaf to hide under.

A substream without those little nooks and crannies leaves waterdogs with nowhere to hide from predators or to lay eggs. In rivers like that, you simply won’t find them, Teitsworth says. 

“In places like, say, the Neuse River in Raleigh and parts of Wake County that have been heavily impacted, this is an area that should have that cobbled gravel stream bottom but now has been eroding for decades and it’s all filled in,” Teitsworth says. 

“It’s all sand and silt and loose substream, so that seems to be negatively affecting where we find waterdogs. I have not caught a waterdog anywhere in the main stem of the Neuse River, which is a little concerning.”

Teitsworth hasn’t caught any juvenile waterdogs in Wake, Durham, or Orange Counties. Waterdogs can live for 15 years or more, Teitsworth says, much longer than most salamanders. While larger salamanders tend to live longer, the waterdog’s secret to longevity is unclear. A dearth of young waterdogs could indicate an issue with breeding or an environment becoming less suitable. On smaller tributaries like the Little River, however, Teitsworth has caught several adult and juvenile salamanders.

Around trap number 25, I have mostly given up hope of seeing a waterdog. Then Teitsworth pulls up a trap, and his mouth curls into a grin beneath his face mask. Unceremoniously, he turns around and says, “I got one.”

At first, it looks like a fat, mud-colored worm. But Teitsworth places it in a clear plastic tray with water, and the red gills splay out ornately as it half crawls and half slithers around the container.  

Waterdogs’ spots are like fingerprints and can be used to identify them. Teitsworth measures the salamander and takes a picture of it before tagging it with a yellow ink tattoo. 

He does this so he can re-identify and track the critters he’s already caught—but he’s rarely recaught any. He’s not sure why. 

“Part of me wonders if it’s because they know, ‘Hey, this was not a fun experience going into that metal trap, I don’t want to do that again,’” Teitsworth says. “That could be traumatic.”

But the salamander wriggling before us seems relatively undisturbed. I ask if I can hold it, and Teitsworth says sure. I place my palms under its belly and gently lift it out of the water. It crawls slowly over my hands, leaving a trail of slime. 

Unlike snakes or other supposedly scary reptiles, salamanders enjoy an elevated status in the world of creepy-crawlies. They are cute. Even on a syllabic level, the word “salamander,” whose consonants seem to curl around one another, conjures feelings of childlike inquisition.

Waterdogs, in fact, stay kids forever. Most species of salamander begin their life cycles in the water, laying eggs in their substream hideaways that hatch into tadpoles before moving on to a mostly terrestrial adulthood. Their colorful gills retract into their bodies, their legs and tales elongate, and their bodies thicken. 

But waterdogs never make it onto land and remain in a juvenile-like stage their entire lives, Teitsworth says. Thus, they retain the “baby” characteristics of bright red gills and flipper-like tail. 

The waterdogs’ lack of terrestrial mobility may make them more sensitive to changes in the environment. If conditions upstream change, they have fewer places to go. 

“Look at all the impact on Crabtree Creek from the development,” Braswell says. “There’s been times when mud plume from development in Cary was going all the way down to New Bern. From satellite photos, you could see the red mud and where it was coming from.”

Braswell believes the federal government needs to invest more heavily in protecting the state’s waterways. With funding, some rivers and streams in North Carolina have seen dramatic improvements. 

“I’m hoping that we can maintain enough environmental controls to keep our water quality in decent shape and not lose significantly more ground on it,” Braswell says.

Teitsworth asks if I want to release our captive waterdog into the stream. I take the small plastic tray over to the river and gently let it fill with water. The salamander glides out slowly, as if not overly concerned or frightened, and carefully makes its way across the leaves littering the bottom, becoming less and less visible the farther out it goes.

Those who have seen waterdogs hold a special fondness for them, and I am no exception. I ask Braswell why, of all threatened species, the waterdog stands out to him. The fascination is simple, he says. 

“It’s ours. It occurs nowhere else.” 

I ask the inevitable question: At the current rate of population decline, how much time do waterdogs have before they disappear? Humphries says they don’t have a clear answer. While few have been found near urban areas, sections of the Tar River and its tributaries seem to maintain more stable populations. 

“One day, the Neuse River waterdog will have to change its name to the Tar River waterdog,” Humphries jokes. “It’s called the Neuse River waterdog, but we don’t really find them in the Neuse anymore.” 

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