What is a Hellbender?
Eastern Hellbenders are aquatic amphibians that spend their entire lives in water. They prefer cool, shallow rivers where rocks are not embedded in sediment or silted in. These conditions exist in many parts of the Blue River
Clean water is important for Hellbenders because they obtain most of their oxygen from the water by “breathing” through their skin. When breathing, their fleshy folds expand in surface area, enabling them to absorb more oxygen from the water.
Adults are typically active at night or on overcast days, and otherwise remain hidden under rocks and other cover. When foraging, hellbenders walk along the bottom searching crevices for prey. Their diet consists almost entirely of crayfish, though they will also eat some small fish and aquatic insects. Hellbenders have small eyes and rely primarily on smell to locate prey.
Eastern Hellbenders are one of the few salamander species to externally fertilize eggs. As the female begins to deposit eggs, the male will simultaneously release sperm to fertilize her clutch. Females lay between 100-300 eggs under a male’s nest rock. Individual eggs are attached to each other and have a stringy, beaded appearance resembling a pearl necklace (see the top picture in the diagram below). After egg laying is complete, the male drives off the female and defends the eggs from predators, which include other hellbenders. Eggs hatch into 1-2 inch larvae after 55-75 days. The newly hatched larvae can survive for several months without eating by absorbing nutrients stored in their yolk.
Little is known about the larval life cycle, but they are thought to feed on a variety of aquatic insects and live under gravel and cobble to avoid predators. It is during this larval stage that individuals are the most vulnerable to predation by fish, crayfish, and other aquatic organisms. The larval stage lasts for approximately two years at which point the young undergo a partial transformation. During this life stage, young absorb their gills and begin breathing through their skin. After transformation, juveniles require another three to four years to reach sexual maturity (pictured to the right).
Hellbender populations are declining across their range, from Missouri to New York. This decline, which affects the hellbender population in Indiana's Blue River, is likely caused by human influences such as habitat degradation and destruction. The stream-bottom habitat of hellbenders can be degraded by sediment from eroded banks and fields and destroyed when streams are dammed or dredged. Hellbenders are also captured inadvertently by anglers or purposefully for illegal sale in the pet trade. Finally, emerging diseases may be impacting some populations of hellbenders. Specifically, the chytrid fungus (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis) and Ranavirus (family Iridoviridae) are considered to be major threats to the persistence of hellbender populations across their range.
Many states are developing conservation programs to help the hellbender. These conservation initiatives are diverse and consist of captive breeding and head-starting programs, education programs that promote awareness, increased protection through state and federal regulations, and strong research collaborations between academic institutions and government agencies (Hellbender Conservation, Hellbender Public Attitudes, and Hellbender Repatriation). Most recently, the Ozark hellbender subspecies, C. a. bishopi, was given protection as federally-listed endangered species. For more information view our Conservation Efforts.
For more information on what you can do to help, visit the anglers, homeowners, farmers, teachers, and kids web pages. found at the top of each page give information about how individuals from each one of these groups can help the hellbender.
- Pisgah brewing 2016 hellbender will benefit wild south
The Full Pint
- Help the hellbenders: Don't move the rocks
- Nonprofit aims to help embattled amphibian recover
The Daily Star
- Local salamander conservation focus of AU lecture
- Historic hellbender hatches
- Scientists find a 200 year old salamander just chilling
- The hellbender: an original member of the Ozarks community
KSMU Ozarks Public Radio
- Cupid's syringe: a love potion for troubled amphibians
- Hot on the Alabama trail of the elusive hellbender
The Wildlife Society
- Toledo zoo and Penta partner to help threatened hellbender salamanders
- Outdoors: Stories of Pennsylvania's largest salamander
- Chattanooga zoo announces baby hellbenders
- Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo to help rear rare hellbenders
- Saint Louis Zoo shares secrets of salamander love at hellbender symposium
St. Louis Public Radio
- News about hellbenders reaches the northeastern US
Maine Dept. of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife
- Purdue-Zoo Partnership Aims to Save the Hellbender
- Purdue part of national group bent on saving the hellbender