|What is a Hellbender?
12 June 1997
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
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
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
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.