What is a Hellbender?
The hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis) is one of the largest salamanders in the western hemisphere. It inhabits the larger streams of the Mississippi River drainage in the western part of North Carolina. The subspecies found in our state ranges from southern and western New York south to northern Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and west to Missouri and southeastern Kansas. It is almost always found in clear, fast flowing rivers and large streams with rocky bottoms.
The grotesque appearance of this huge salamander has given it an unearned reputation among anglers as a poisonous amphibian that competes with fish for food. It is, however, nonpoisonous and harmless to humans. Hellbenders can grow to a length of 29 inches but typical ranges for the subspecies is 11″-20.” The hellbender has a flattened head that bears small, lidless eyes. Each side of the body has a wrinkled, fleshy fold of skin. Their limbs are short and stout with four fingers and five toes. Their color is usually gray, but may vary from yellowish brown to almost black and may feature dark or light spots. Their underside is lighter and without mottling.
The adult hellbender is a totally aquatic salamander that lacks gills but does have a gill slit on each side of the throat. Hellbenders rarely, if ever, emerge from the water; they can survive for weeks in water by taking in oxygen through the folds of their wrinkled skin. They rock back and forth to keep freshly oxygenated water coursing over their skin.
Hellbenders typically hide beneath submerged rocks or logs or in cavities in the riverbank, and, like most salamanders, come out at night to feed. They forage stream bottoms for crayfish, fish, worms, tadpoles, and insects. The large size of an adult makes it pretty much predator-free, although smaller, larval hellbenders are eaten by fish and adult hellbenders.
The breeding activities of the hellbender begin in late summer. The male constructs a nest cavity, usually beneath a large flat rock, and then entices a female into the nest where she lays 200-500 yellowish eggs in long strings that are fertilized by the male. The male guards the nest during incubation. After a three-month incubation, the eggs hatch into larvae about one inch long. When 4″-5″ inches in length and 18 months of age, the larvae lose their gills. Juvenile hellbenders develop for two more years until they reach sexual maturity at approximately four years of age.
Hellbenders are a long-lived species; in captivity, they have survived for more than 50 years. In the wild, however, they are extremely sensitive to changes in water quality and cannot survive in polluted waters, a condition that has caused a decline in their numbers over recent years.
Considered a Federal Species at Risk, there is concern about the future of the hellbender in North Carolina because of its sensitivity to polluted waters. These slippery salamanders may not be pretty but they are an interesting and integral part of western North Carolina’s aquatic environment.