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Hellbender Salamander

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Growing up to 2.5 feet in length, the hellbender is an odd looking creature with a broad flattened head, loose and wrinkled skin, small beady eyes and a paddle-like tail. Gentle and a bit shy, they prefer swimming in fast flowing river habitats and hiding under rocks during the day. They are mostly active right when the sun goes down when they search for a meal of crawfish.

Hellbenders are considered an endangered species in Indiana. Historical records indicate that the hellbender once occurred in Fourteen Mile Creek; Little Blue River; Whitewater River; Silver Creek; Indian Creek; Ohio River and the Wabash River. Today, the hellbender's singular habitat in Indiana is the clean and clear Blue River of southern Indiana.

Threats to the Hellbender's Survival

As a large but apprehensive amphibian, the adult hellbender's main threat is man. An angler using live bait may accidentally hook one or may unknowingly destroy their nests while trudging along the riverbed. Then there are those who search to capture the hellbender to keep them as pets or sell them to pet stores. Taking this endangered species away from its natural habitat, for any reason, is illegal and detrimental in raising its population in Indiana.

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Pollution also threatens this species. Hellbenders, like many other amphibians, breathe through their porous skin, which makes them extremely vulnerable to water pollution, siltation and impoundment. Like sponges, hellbenders will easily soak up their surrounding environment. That is why they are only found in water that is clear, clean and well-oxygenated with large rocks scattered on the bottom.  

What is Being Done to Protect Hellbenders

The Nature Conservancy's Blue River Project Office has worked on various projects to make sure the river basin is protected with the help of local partners and landowners by preventing soil erosion through the planting of trees. By planting trees alongside the river that flows through their property, TNC and local landowners create a vegetated buffer that will protect the water quality of the Blue River by acting as a filtering system for erosion. The presence of trees and natural shrubs will also help prevent soil from entering the river with runoff with their roots stabilizing the riverbend. Other work done by the Blue River Project office, such as working with the city of Salem's wastewater treatment, indirectly contributes to the health of the river and helps increase much needed habitat for the hellbender. 

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Hellbenders are needed in Indiana because they play an important role in maintaining the river's ecology and are good indicators for water quality. The lack of younger populations in locations where hellbenders live is becoming a growing concern. In the upcoming year, Purdue University will conduct a study on why these giants aren't reproducing the way they should and why there are no juveniles found near existing nests. In Missouri, where hellbender populations continue to drop, the recent discovery of unexplained deformities is also becoming an issue. Like the canary in the coal mine, amphibians are trusted to monitor the health of the surrounding environment for other animals, including humans. In many ways, we need them as much as they need us to protect their habitat.

Fun Hellbender Facts
  • The hellbender was named as such due to its ugliness and that when caught by a fisherman, it was exclaimed the large salamander had to be a creature straight from the infernal regions.
  • The hellbender is sometimes unflatteringly referred to as a snot otter, devil dog and mud cat. Please don't call it a mudpuppy; those creatures are of an entirely different species of salamander.
  • Hellbenders are prehistoric creatures having roamed the Earth for more than 150 million years.  
  • Hellbenders are the largest salamanders in North America.
  • The family Cryptobranchidae means “hidden gills.” Hellbenders lose their gills around two years of age when the gills are absorbed into the body. As adults, they are able to live entirely underwater by breathing through blood vessels in their skin.
  • Oddly enough...hellbenders have lungs that are not used to breath. It is the only species of salamander in North America to do so. Scientists believe they use these lungs for buoyancy.   
  • Though it has a flat, eel-like tail, the hellbender rarely swims. Instead, it will trudge through the bottom of the river bed with its short legs, using the rough pads on their toes for traction.
  • Hellbenders are opportunistic cannibals- adults will eat smaller adults as well as the eggs and larvae from their own nests and those of others.  
  • Contrary to some local fishermen, the hellbender is not poisonous. If you find an unfortunate hellbender on the end of your line, please unhook them instead of cutting the line and letting them go. Remember, the hellbender is endangered in Indiana and must be protected. Under no circumstances should they be killed, trapped or kept as pets. 
For More Information

Cryptobranchus alleganiensis profile at the Animal Diversity Web

Hellbender profile from AmphibiaWeb

Quick Facts

Scientific name:Cryptobranchus alleganiensis
Length: can grow up to 11-30 inches
Weight: up to 4-5 lbs
Coloration: varies; olive green, yellow brown or slate grey with black spots
Diet: mostly crayfish but will also eat mollusks, small fish and worms
Predators: large fish, turtles and other large water mammals; man - when caught on fishing lines
Lifespan: averages between 25-35 years in the wild; recorded up to 50 years in captivity


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