NATURAL HISTORY

HELLBENDER } Cryptobranchus alleganiensis
FAMILY: Cryptobranchidae

DESCRIPTION: Hellbenders are considered to be living fossils because they have changed so little over time. They are large, stout-bodied, fully-aquatic salamanders that grow to be two feet long with brown, grey or black skin with lighter markings. Hellbenders have flattened bodies and heads that allow them to cling to the river bottom, as well as a rough pad on their toes for traction on slick rocks. They have paddle-like tails for swimming, and numerous folds of fleshy skin for oxygen absorption. Their eyes are small, without lids, and their skin secretes toxic slime to ward off predators.

HABITAT: This salamander occurs in rocky, clear creeks and rivers, usually where there are large shelter rocks. It generally avoids water warmer than 68 degrees Fahrenheit. Males prepare nests and attend eggs beneath large, flat rocks or submerged logs.

RANGE: This species is found in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, Mississippi, North Carolina, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia. The Ozark subspecies is found only in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas.

MIGRATION: The hellbender does not migrate.

BREEDING: Hellbender breeding is aquatic. Males may move short distances within their home ranges to brooding sites. The breeding season is variable but occurs mainly in September and October; a male prepares a nest by moving gravel to create a saucer-shaped depression, then depositing 200-400 eggs in the depression. The male fertilizes the eggs and guards the nests until the young are about three weeks old.

LIFE CYCLE: Newly hatched larvae are approximately 1.2 inches long. Development is rapid, and hatchlings double their size in the first year. Larvae normally lose their external gills in the second summer after hatching. Hellbenders reach sexual maturity at five to six years and may live as long as 30 years.

FEEDING: Crayfish are the most important food items for hellbenders, but the salamanders’ diet also includes fish, insects, earthworms, snails, tadpoles, fish eggs, other hellbenders and other hellbenders’ eggs.

THREATS: This species is mainly threatened by poor water quality, unsustainable collection for the pet trade and scientific purposes, persecution by anglers, disease caused by chytrid fungus, stocking of predatory fish and loss of genetic diversity.

POPULATION TREND: The hellbender is declining throughout its range. The Ozark hellbender in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas is in especially alarming decline.
Hellbender photo by Ken Roblee, New York Department of Environmental Conservation