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What the Hellbender!

By Valorie Titus
June 3, 2011
File under: Amphibians, Animal Protection, Ecosystems, Endangered Species

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Devil dog, grampus, mud-devil, Allegheny alligator, leverian water newt, vulgo, and my personal favorite, snot otter. These are the many names of one of my most favorite critters, the hellbender. The name “hellbender” was likely coined due to this amphibian’s appearance.

While herpetologists adore its wrinkly skin and beady little eyes, some people just don’t understand how anyone could love such a creature. It is said that hellbenders were named by early European settlers that thought “it was a creature from Hell, where it’s bent on returning,” but in fact, the animal is a fairly large, harmless, and in my opinion, very cute aquatic salamander.

Measuring nearly two feet in length as adults, the hellbender is one of the world’s largest species of salamanders. There are two subspecies: the eastern hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis alleganiensis) and the Ozark hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis bishopi).

Only two other larger salamander species are known to exist, the Japanese giant salamander and its cousin, the Chinese hellbender. Both of these Asian salamanders can grow to up to 6 feet long! Hellbenders have flattened heads and bodies, small dorsal eyes, and slimy, wrinkly skin. They are typically a mottled brown or reddish-brown color, with a pale underbelly. Like most species of salamanders, they have four toes on their front legs and five on their back. Their tails narrow to an edge along the dorsal surface in order to propel them through water.

Hellbenders have functioning lungs, but gill slits are often retained and oxygen is mostly absorbed from the water through capillaries in the folds of skin along their sides. Only juvenile hellbenders have true, external gills. Due to the way they breathe, hellbenders are fully aquatic. They are typically nocturnal but can be active on cloudy days.

During the day, hellbenders hide under rocks and fallen logs and most don’t travel far from their cover. They tend to be found in large, rocky, swift-flowing, and unpolluted streams, living beneath large rocks in shallow rapids. They have a tendency to avoid the areas without rocks to hide under. Generally, their home range is only a few hundred square yards, but some have been observed to make fairly long movements. Hellbenders are also quite territorial and rarely share their space with others.

It is listed as Special Concern in New York, Threatened in Alabama and Endangered in Indiana, Illinois, Maryland, and Ohio. Not much is known about this salamander’s basic life history and behaviors or its historical distribution. The lack of data makes it unclear as to how natural populations have fluctuated over time, but the existing research suggests populations are declining drastically, and there is minimal evidence of successful reproductive recruitment into these populations. Without successful reproduction, these populations are in grave danger of becoming locally extirpated and possibly, extinct in the wild.

We can’t pinpoint one major cause of any population decline, but there are several contributing factors that researchers feel are causing drops in hellbender populations. Some of the likely culprits are thought to be fishermen, overcollection, disease, endocrine disruptors within streams, and habitat destruction, such as siltation and dams. Fishermen have long persecuted hellbenders due to mythical tales of them being both poisonous and predators of large amounts of game fish. Again, these accusations are untrue.  Historically, there even existed bounties on hellbenders in some areas.

Unfortunately, many people do not realize that if you find a hellbender in a stream, it is a good indicator that the stream is very healthy and you’re sure to catch fish! Hellbenders have also been popular in the pet trade for some time. They are difficult to keep in captivity without the right equipment, live a long time, and the young have a low survival rate.

These characteristics make hellbenders very susceptible to overcollection. Endocrine disruptors found in chemicals, like certain herbicides such as Atrazine and Roundup, and diseases have severely impacted hellbender populations. The chemicals can cause significant problems with the animals’ reproductive systems, and fatal diseases have been documented in several populations. Continued surveys and long-term monitoring of populations are vital for developing a recovery plan for this species.

What biologists really need to understand are the behaviors, habitat use, and survivorship of larval and juvenile hellbenders in order to get an idea of what elements are necessary throughout a hellbender’s life cycle. Herpetologists across its range are working hard to understand hellbender natural history, as well as to educate the public on these magnificent creatures. They are not dangerous and do not deplete fish populations. Habitat cleanup and restoration are necessary for the long-term survival of this wonderful animal.

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Photo: Me with my first Hellbender!
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