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For Immediate Release, November 14, 2012

Contact: Collette Adkins Giese, (651) 955-3821

Hellbender, North America's Largest Amphibian, Makes List of
Top 10 Species Threatened by Water Pollution

New Report Names the Ozarks as one of Top 10 Ecosystems Facing Water Woes

COLUMBIA, Mo. The hellbender, North America’s largest amphibian, was named one of the 10 U.S. species most threatened by freshwater pollution in a report released today by the Endangered Species Coalition. The report, Water Woes: How Dams, Diversions, Dirty Water and Drought Put America’s Wildlife at Risk, highlights how reductions in water quality and quantity threaten imperiled species in 10 important ecosystems across the country. The Ozark hellbender, which can grow longer than two feet, is found in streams in northern Arkansas and southern Missouri. The eastern hellbender ranges from Mississippi to New York. Both have declined in recent years and remain threatened with extinction due to water pollution and dams.

Ozark hellbender
Ozark hellbender photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons/Brian Gratwicke. Photos of species and ecosystems in the "Top 10" report are available for media use.

“Hellbenders are strange and fascinating creatures that also serve as a barometer for the health of the freshwater systems where they live,” said Collette Adkins Giese, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity who works to protect amphibians and reptiles. “When we protect water quality for hellbenders, we also protect water that people rely on for drinking, fishing and recreation.”

The Ozark hellbender has declined by 75 percent since the 1980s, with fewer than 600 remaining in the wild. The primary threat facing Ozark hellbenders is degradation of their aquatic habitats from sources such as mining, fertilizer runoff and animal operations. The eastern hellbender has declined by at least 30 percent. Hellbenders are fully aquatic salamanders, meaning they never leave the water. In highly polluted waters they develop dramatic skin lesions.

The Ozark hellbender was protected under the Endangered Species Act in 2011 as part of an agreement with the Center for Biological Diversity to speed protection decisions for 757 imperiled species across the country. The eastern hellbender is under consideration for protection in response to a petition filed by the Center in 2010 seeking protection for hundreds of at-risk freshwater species in the southeastern United States.

Hellbenders, ancient animals that have changed very little over time, are uniquely adapted to aquatic life. They have paddle-like tails for swimming and flattened bodies and heads that fit in crevices and allow them to cling to the river bottom. Numerous folds of skin on their sides allow increased oxygen absorption from the water. They have lidless eyes and largely rely on vibrations and scents for communication and foraging. They secrete toxic slime to ward off predators but are not poisonous to humans. Hellbenders forage at night, preying on crayfish, insects, dead fish and other amphibians, and are in turn eaten by fish, turtles and snakes. Males build nests by making saucer-shaped depressions in gravel and then defend their nests until young are about three weeks old. Hellbenders reach sexual maturity at 5 to 8 years and may live as long as 30 years.

They are known by a number of colorful common names, including alligator of the mountains, big water lizard, devil dog, mud devil, walking catfish, water dog and snot otter.

Hellbenders are one of many species across the country facing extinction due to water pollution and development. Among the other at-risk ecosystems named in the “Top 10” report are Florida’s Everglades, the Colorado River, the Tennessee River and the Sierra Nevada mountains. For each ecosystem, the report identifies some of the endangered species that live there, as well as the conservation measures required to help them survive. Member groups of the Endangered Species Coalition from across the country nominated the species and ecosystems for inclusion in the report; the submissions were then reviewed and judged by a panel of scientists. Most of the imperiled species are fish, but the report also identifies two amphibians, two birds, two mammals and one plant, all of which are facing water challenges within the 10 ecosystems.

The Endangered Species Coalition has produced a “Top 10” report annually for the last five years. Water Woes can be downloaded at: Previous reports are available on the coalition’s website,

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 450,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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