What's a Hellbender?


    Quick Facts

    Size:  up to 74 cm (29 inches)
    Food:  feed mostly on crayfish, also small fish, snails, worms
    Range: Eastern U.S.; NY to Louisiana and west to MO.  Appalachian and Ozark Mtns.
    Habitat: Small rivers and streams; clean water with many large rocks
    Life Span: up to 55 years in captivity
    Reproduction: several hundred ping-pong ball sized eggs, male guards nest

     Hellbenders are amphibians.  More specifically, they belong to the group of amphibians called salamanders.  Most salamanders you may have seen are tiny, maybe up to 5 or 6 inches long.  Hellbenders are not the largest salamanders in the world, but they're pretty close.  The largest hellbender ever recorded was just over 29 inches long...nearly 2 1/2 feet!  Their close relatives, salamanders in the genus Andrias, can reach lengths over 5 feet.

     Hellbenders have a flat body and head, a large, very keeled tail, and tiny eyes.  Many individuals have fleshy folds of skin along the sides of their body which help to take in oxygen from the water.  The arms and legs are very large and muscular and each hand and foot has 5 fingers.  Hellbenders can range in color from dull brown or gray to bright orange or red.  They usually have some sort of darker spots or blotches on their bodies, but the belly is usually only one color.  If you pick up a hellbender you will find out very quickly that they are extremely slimy!  This makes them very difficult to catch and to handle, but the slime is not poisonous.  Nickerson and Mays (1973) witnessed a dog grab a hellbender in its mouth.  It quickly dropped the salamander with distaste.  Hellbenders do have many, tiny teeth, but they usually don't try to bite.  I have held many hellbenders and not a single one has ever tried to bite unless I was intentionally provoking it! 

    Unlike mudpuppies, hellbenders have external gills only as larvae.  They lose the gills when they reach about 5 inches long, but retain gill slits through their entire lives.  Hellbenders are completely aquatic.  Only rarely have they been reported to come out of the water for any period of time. 

Where Do They Live?

     Since hellbenders spend their entire lives in water they need to have streams that are cool enough and which have enough oxygen to sustain them.  Where do you find streams like that?  In the Appalachian and Ozark Mountains in the eastern United States.  Hellbenders range from southern New York south to Alabama and Mississippi, and west to Missouri and Arkansas.  There are actually two subspecies of hellbenders.  The eastern hellbender, Cryptobranchus alleganiensis alleganiensis, makes up most of the range of the hellbender.  The Ozark hellbender, Cryptobranchus alleganiensis bishopi, is only found in the Ozark Mountains in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas.  See the map to the right (from Salamanders of the U.S.; Petranka, 1998).

     More specifically, hellbenders are thought to need clean, cool streams with many large rocks scattered on the bottom.  They are usually found in smaller rivers and streams, in about 1 - 3 foot deep water.  Rivers that have areas of fast flowing rapids are ideal for these salamanders.  If you know of a good trout stream near you, chances are there are also hellbenders there!

How Do They Reproduce?

     Hellbenders usually breed in autumn, in August or September, but they may breed during winter in some Missouri streams.  Males dig nests beneath large rocks on the bottom of the stream and either wait for a female to enter the nest or he forces a female into the nest.  Sometimes many hellbenders can be found around a single nest site.  The female deposits a few hundred eggs in a strand which swell to a ping-pong ball size eventually.  The male fertilizes the eggs after they have already been deposited -- more like fish than salamanders!  The male stays with the eggs until hatching, which may take place in about 8 weeks.  Sometimes the eggs are eaten by the parents or by other hellbenders though.  Larvae have been difficult to find in most streams. 

This webpage created by Jeff Humphries
If you have questions or comments, email humphri2@marshall.edu