Hellbender

 

Scientific Name: Cryptobranchus alleganiensis

Description: The hellbender is a large, fully-aquatic salamander with a flat head, wrinkled body, and a paddle-shaped tail. Its body is usually dark grey or brown with irregular, dark spots along the back. Although sometimes confused with mudpuppies, hellbenders are easily distinguished by their lack of external gills.

Size: The hellbender is the largest salamander in North America (by weight). Adults average 20 inches in length, but can grow up to 29 inches.

Diet: Hellbenders eat primarily crayfish and fish, but have been known to occasionally eat insects, tadpoles, and even other hellbenders (including eggs). With its large, gaping mouth, the hellbender can eat an animal that is almost as big as itself.

Predation: Juvenile hellbenders have many predators, including fish, turtles, water snakes and other hellbenders. Adults have few predators, but may be eaten by raccoon, mink and river otter.

Typical Lifespan: The hellbender’s lifespan in uncertain. Captive individuals have lived up to 29 years, but a recent study suggests that hellbenders may live 50 years or more in the wild.

Habitat: Hellbenders typically live under large rocks or boulders that are partially buried in cold, fast-flowing streams. These “cover” rocks provide protection from predators, and hellbenders may abandon a habitat if the rocks are removed or disturbed.

Distribution: There are two subspecies of hellbenders. The Ozark hellbender lives in a small number of rivers in Missouri and Arkansas. The eastern hellbender is broadly distributed throughout the Appalachian region (southern New York to northern Georgia), and also occurs in Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri. 

Life History and Reproduction: Hellbenders mate in the fall, under large “nest” rocks. Females lay a double strand of 100 – 500 eggs, and these are fertilized externally. Males guard the nests, and eggs hatch in about 2 months. Larvae are about an inch long and have external gills. When hellbenders are about 2 years old, the gills disappear and they start breathing entirely through their skin. Hellbenders reach sexual maturity at around 6-8 years of age.

Fun Fact: Hellbenders have large, simple lungs that are used for buoyancy instead of breathing.

Conservation Status: Hellbender populations have declined throughout most of the species’ historic range. The Ozark hellbender is federally endangered, and the conservation status of the eastern subspecies is currently being evaluated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Videos

Eastern hellbender, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries
Hellbender, Missouri Department of Conservation

Sources

The Ozark Hellbender: Can We Save It?, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Eastern hellbender, NatureServe Explorer
Eastern hellbender, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries
Hellbender, Missouri Department of Conservation

Authored by Dr. Kimberly Terrell, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute 

 

 

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