Hellbender Salamander is the Closest Thing We Have to STRANGER THINGS’ Dart

Warning: The following article contains major Stranger Things 2 spoilers. If you haven’t finished the season, you may want to make like you just stumbled into the Hawkins National Laboratory at night and run away now.    

In the third episode of Stranger Things 2, “The Pollywog,” we see Dustin pluck Yertle the Turtle from his terrarium and plop in d’Artagnan, a mysterious tadpole-like creature he found in his garbage can. But while Dart, as he becomes known, is reasonably cute at first, he quickly grows into something that looks like a long, fat, frilly slug with four feet and a lot of shiny slime sheen slathered across its body. In other words, Dart basically becomes an Upside Down version of a hellbender salamander. At least for a period of time before he continues transforming into that nightmare of nightmares, the Demogorgon.

Although there doesn’t seem to have been any confirmation from anybody working on Stranger Things, it would be a smart bet that the VFX team tasked with creating the pollywog looked to the hellbender salamander (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis) for inspiration. Not only does Dart’s basic body shape and skin glossiness match the hellbender, little details also seem to signal ties between the show’s creature and C. alleganiensis. Both creatures have five toes on their back limbs and four toes on their front limbs, for example. Student researchers at WVU even noted that after posting pictures of hellbenders they were studying, the internet’s reaction was immediately to dub them Demogorgons.

Despite the similarity in appearance, the hellbender salamander, which has been around for 65 million years, is unlike Dart in most other ways. The relatively massive amphibian (it’s the third largest aquatic salamander in the world and the fourth heaviest amphibian at more than five pounds), doesn’t tend to be aggressive, although according to some handlers it does have one gnarly bite. It also generally feeds on small fish and crayfish as opposed to the Henderson family cat. (RIP Mews.) And while both creatures can be found in North America, it’s unclear if Dart could really be considered endemic to the region like the hellbender salamander, considering the fact that he comes from an alternate dimension.

The biggest difference is that the hellbender, which incidentally goes by the names “lasagna lizard,” “snot otter,” and, yes, “devil dog,” spends much of its time in water. In fact, it’s adapted to the water in a very unique way. The hellbender utilizes something called cutaneous respiration, which means that it doesn’t use gills or lungs to breathe, and instead breathes through its skin. This little respiratory quirk means that the hellbender is especially sensitive to its surroundings, and unfortunately, it’s apparently been picking up on something wrong with the water for some time now.

There has been “a dramatic decline in populations in the majority of locations” due to anthropogenic sources, and many hellbender populations have been “irreversibly damaged,” the wiki for the animal notes. And while Eleven wiping out the Demogorgon population was most definitely a good thing, people putting the poor, harmless hellbender salamander in danger is definitely not.

What do you think about the hellbender salamander and its likeness to the pollywog? Do you think the Stranger Things VFX team used C. alleganiensis for reference, or does Dart look more like some other creature to you? Let us know in the comments below!

Featured Image: Virginia State Parks

Images: Brian Gratwicke, Netflix

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