The hellbender is the largest salamander in the United States. They are found along the east coast from Georgia to New York and out west up to Oklahoma and Kansas. They are usually between 12-15 inches but can get up to 29 inches long. Hellbenders are reddish brown and have four toes on their front legs and five on their back limbs.
Hellbenders are found in fast-flowing streams, and need very clean water to survive. They eat crayfish, other hellbenders, tadpoles, toads, watersnakes, and small fish. The reason hellbenders live in flowing water is because it is more oxygenated. Although hellbenders have lungs, they are non-functional, and 95% of the time breathe through several flaps of skin on their sides. Hellbenders are also covered in mucus, which keeps them from getting scratched and protects them from parasites. It also tastes bad, discouraging predators.
Image courtesy of Will Parson, Chesapeake Bay Program
Hellbenders are listed as near threatened on the IUCN red list, but they are threatened by several problems. Habitat loss is especially damaging, as streams are being changed by the addition of silt and pollution, warming waters, and altering the course of steams and rivers. Fishermen may also kill hellbenders accidentally, for bait, or because they mistakenly believe that they are venomous. To survive, hellbenders need cold, clean, quick-running water, which is getting harder and harder to find. Because of this, hellbenders can act as indicators of healthy streams.
Four states in the US list the hellbender as endangered, one as threatened, and one as of special concern. You can help protect these amazing salamanders by using fewer pesticides and fertilizer in your garden or lawn and saving water.
Eastern hellbender. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. (n.d.). Retrieved September 19, 2021, from https://www.fws.gov/southeast/wildlife/amphibians/eastern-hellbender/.
Hellbender. National Wildlife Federation. (n.d.). Retrieved September 19, 2021, from https://www.nwf.org/Educational-Resources/Wildlife-Guide/Amphibians/Hellbender.
Hellbender. Smithsonian's National Zoo. (2018, July 9). Retrieved September 19, 2021, from https://nationalzoo.si.edu/animals/hellbender.
Cover Image courtesy of Dr. Kimberly Terrell, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute