What is a hellbender?

June 1997

The hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis) is one of the largest salamanders in the western hemisphere. It lives in 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.

An adult eastern hellbender. (Photo courtesy Rod Williams Laboratory)

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 the typical size for the subspecies is 11to 20 inches. Its flattened head has small, lidless eyes, and each side of the body has a wrinkled, fleshy fold of skin. Limbs are short and stout with four fingers and five toes. Color is usually gray, but may vary from yellowish brown to almost black, and sometimes feature dark or light spots. The underside is lighter and without mottling.

The adult hellbender is totally aquatic and lacks gills, but does have a gill slit on each side of the throat. Hellbenders rarely, if ever, emerge from the water, surviving for weeks by taking in oxygen through the folds of their wrinkled skin. They rock back and forth to keep freshly oxygenated water coursing over the skin.

Hellbenders usually hide beneath submerged rocks or logs, or in cavities in the riverbank. Like  most salamanders, they 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 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 an inch long. When 4 to 5 inches in length and at about 18 months of age, the larvae lose their gills. Juvenile hellbenders develop for two more years and reach sexual maturity at about 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.