What Are Hellbenders? Let’s Find Out!

Life on Earth is amazingly weird and cool. It’s countless species interacting with their surroundings. Fighting to survive and reproduce. Today, let’s take a closer look at one of the spookiest creatures out there: the Eastern Hellbender. Despite the weird name, hellbenders are rad. The hellbender is a primordial-looking salamander. It can be found throughout the Southeastern United States.

a hellbender in a stream

What is the hellbender’s scientific name?

All Hellbenders are known as Cryptobranchus alleganiensis. But there are two subspecies: the Eastern Hellbender and the Ozark Hellbender.

An Eastern Hellbender is also known as Cryptobranchus alleganiensis alleganiensis. They are found throughout the Eastern United States. They’re a rare find due to their habitat requirements. You really know natural habitats if you know where the hellbender populations are!

The other subspecies is the Ozark Hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis bishopi). The Missouri Department of Conservation (MDOC) says the Ozark Hellbender lives in Southern Missouri and Northern Arkansas.

How big can hellbenders get?

You can call them hellbender, salamander, or “what the heck is that?” They’re huge! They’re one of the largest salamanders in the world. Hellbenders can reach an impressive length. The average hellbender is about two feet long. Some individuals can reach over 29 inches in length.

How long do hellbenders live?

Hellbender populations have to stick around for a while to get to that large size. Hellbenders reach sexual maturity around 5-6 years of age. Sexually mature adult hellbenders may live up to 30 years.

Unfortunately, hellbenders need clean water and large flat rocks. These are becoming more rare in streams and rivers. Hellbenders are threatened or endangered in multiple states, including:

  • New York
  • Missouri
  • Ohio
  • Illinois
  • Indiana
  • Alabama

The hellbender salamander is a federally endangered species in Missouri. This grants it even more protections.

Where do hellbender populations live?

Cryptobranchus alleganiensis live in streams. Hellbenders are perfectly suited for life in fast-flowing, rocky streams. They spend most of their time hiding under rocks and hunting for prey in the shallow waters. You can find hellbender populations in streams and rivers across Eastern North America.

hellbenders hide easily

How do hellbenders breathe?

Hellbenders have vestigial lungs that are mostly nonfunctional. 95% of their oxygen comes through loose flaps and skin folds. Mucus covers their bodies to protect them from abrasions and parasites. Their skin is very thin to aid in breathing. Unfortunately, their thin skin makes them very sensitive to water pollution. Water pollution and human disturbances (like climate change) are two leading causes of hellbender decline.

What do hellbenders look like?

Georgia Parham at the US Fish and Wildlife Service called them both “fantastic beasts” and “gentle giants.” They’re not brightly colored, but their size gives them a mystical quality. Hellbenders have a mottled brown or gray appearance with a light-colored underside. However, their coloring varies based on their habitat.

Telling an Eastern Hellbender from an Ozark Hellbender is more art that science. It’s mainly based on geography. But the Eastern Hellbender is slightly bigger than the Ozark Hellbender. Other than the size difference, the two subspecies are nearly identical. Hellbender habitat is also similar between the two subspecies.

How do hellbenders breed?

They have distinct mating behavior. During breeding season, males will build underwater nests. They defend them against other males. Females will make their choice and lay their eggs inside the nests. Once the eggs hatch, these dedicated daddies stay to protect the larvae until they can fend for themselves.

Final Thoughts About Hellbenders

In conclusion, this aquatic species is fascinating. They play an essential role in the US South’s biodiversity. Have you seen Eastern Hellbenders out in the wild? Let us know about your experience with these aquatic salamanders in the comments below!


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One Response to “What Are Hellbenders? Let’s Find Out!”

  1. Gwen Bills

    Such an interesting article. I knew nothing about them till I read this. Thank you!


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