The Hellbender, (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis), is America’s largest species of aquatic salamander in the Cryptobranchidae family . They are active year round and generally spend the daylight hours in natural or self-excavated dens underneath large slabs of rock, logs or boards on the bottom of streams or rivers. They become active after dark to forage for crayfish, fish, frogs and a variety of invertebrates. Hellbenders were listed as a species of special concern in New York in 1983, and is listed as an endangered species in Maryland, Ohio, Illinois and Indiana, and threatened in Alabama. In New York State, this rare creature is found in only a few river basins in southwestern and southeastern counties.
Hellbenders are considered habitat specialists as they fill a specific niche within a specific environment; they require a constancy of dissolved oxygen, temperature and water flow; therefore, they are found in areas with swiftly moving water, with narrow rocky shorelines. Hellbenders are endemic to eastern North America, ranging from southwestern to south-central New York, west to southern Illinois and northeastern Mississippi, as well as northern parts of Alabama and Georgia.
Size: mature adults range in size from 12-29 inches in length
Color: varies from grayish to olive brown and occasionally entirely black in color with dark mottling over the back and upper sides.
Body: Hellbenders have a flattened head and body with several loose flaps of thick wrinkled skin that run latterly along either side of their bodies, which aids in respiration. They have short stout legs, a long rudder-like tail, and small beady eyes on the top of their heads.
Lifespan: Hellbenders reach sexual maturity at about 5 years of age and may live for 30 years.
Hellbenders are often mistaken for mudpuppies; but unlike mudpuppies, hellbenders don’t have external gills, they breathe through wrinkly folds located along their sides, and hellbenders are much larger in size. The top photo shows the gills of a muddpuppy, while the bottom photo shows the wrinkly folds of a hellbender.
There is much folklore surrounding the origin of its name, but it is thought that the name ‘Hellbendender’ was given to this salamander by early settlers who thought it looked like” a creature from hell where it’s bent on returning.” Other nicknames given to the Hellbender salamander are: snot otter, devil dog, mud devil, grampus, Allegheny alligator, mud dog, water dog, and leverian water newt. The genus name Cryptobranchus is derived from the Ancient Greek word “kryptos” meaning hidden and “branchion” meaning gill. This may refer to the loose wrinkled flaps of skin that run along the sides of their bodies and are used for respiration.
The courtship between male and female hellbenders is unique. Unlike many other species, it is the male not the female that care for their young. Mating season for hellbender species begins in late summer; during that time sexually mature male hellbenders excavate a nest chamber beneath large rocks in preparation for breeding. Female hellbenders are either attracted or corralled into these prepared nests by the male. Egg lying occurs in the nest during the first week of September when females simultaneously deposit their eggs forming a yellowish softball-like mass containing between 150-400 eggs ranging from 5-7 mm in diameter. The eggs are fertilized externally as they are deposited; to ensure fertilization male and female hellbenders rotate their bodies inside the nest to mix the sperm and egg mixture. After fertilization, the male remains within the nest to care for the eggs until they hatch later in November.
Title photo: (flicker.com). Habitat/Distribution map photo: (dec.ny.gov). NY county map, (digitaltopomaps). Gills of muddpuppy vs. hellbender photos: (ohioamphibians.com)
“Eastern Hellbender Cryptobranchus Alleganiensis.” Eastern Hellbender Fact Sheet. Department of Environmental Conservation, n.d. Web. 29 July 2015.
“Hellbender.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 29 July 2015.
“Is It a Hellbender or Mudpuppy?” Is It a Hellbender or Mudpuppy? Ohio Amphabians, 19 Jan. 2012. Web. 29 July 2015.