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The Hellbender: Giant Salamander of the United States

Friday, 6 April 2018

When you think about where giant salamanders come from, most people would normally associate them with China and Japan.  Yet while it is true that almost all members of the giant salamander family, the Cryptobranchidae, originate in Asia there is one species which calls the eastern United States its home.  It is Cryptobranchus alleganiensis, known otherwise and popularly as the hellbender.

Why this giant salamander, which can grow up to 30 inches in length, acquired this name is lost to history.  Some say it is because of its strange looks which bewildered early European settlers who imagined that it was a creature from the underworld, bent on returning there.  While this is hardly fair, it is not its only unflattering moniker: it also goes by the names mud-devil, devil-dog and more recently, the snotty otter.  The first name, as we shall see is the most inaccurate: the hellbender doesn’t like mud one little bit.

Despite the name and size the hellbender is harmless to people.  In fact they are great indicators to the health of a waterway.  If a stream or river has hellbenders then the chances are that the water and ecosystem is healthy.  That is because the hellbender has something of an appetite – it eats up to four crayfish in a night before returning to it lair underneath a rock.  If crayfish are scarce then it will add small fish, frogs and water snakes to its diet. The hellbender can be found from north Alabama up to south New York.

For most of the year the males are extremely territorial and will fight off any other salamander that it thinks is intruding in to its territory.  They have even been known to kill and eat encroaching hellbenders. However, during August the males forget about their solitary existence and look for a mate.  It is at this time that their behavior becomes very aggressive. Once mating has taken place the eggs are laid in an underwater nest.  The ones below dislodged and made their way downstream. They are about an inch in diameter which is, for an amphibian egg, rather large - look closely and you can see the young hellbenders inside.

It is thought that up to 90 percent of the hellbender population has disappeared over the last century.  Siltation is the biggest problem facing the hellbender: mud builds up and over time it fills in all the nooks and crannies that the salamander likes to make home.  The problem comes back, inevitably, to us and how we use the land that feeds in to the rivers in which the hellbender lives.  So, while the mud-devil may be one of its nick-names, the hellbender is no fan of the stuff.

This documentary, by Freshwaters Illustrated, gives us some remarkable underwater footage of the hellbender in its natural habitat including the vicious fighting which goes on between males during the mating season.  It was created in partnership with the US Forest Service.  The pictures of people (their hands, at least) included in this feature are all of trained naturalists who know how to search for the hellbender without damaging its environment – please don’t try it yourself if you find yourself in the Appalachians.

Such is its predicament that the hellbender was one of the species used in a campaign attempting to help combat overpopulation of the planet by our own species.  Its features were used to adorn the front of a pack containing a prophylactic with the legend: when you're feeling tender, think about the hellbender.

As the documentary says, once the hellbender is gone, it’s gone: without the clear water it needs to survive things are looking bleak for the species.  The hellbender has all but disappeared from urbanized areas and large(ish) populations are only found at high elevations where the water is still pure and the area around is completely forested.  Without the National Forest system in America it is quite likely that the hellbender would be extinct already.  Let us hope that what remains can be preserved as if the hellbender disappears from its final waters, then it means those waters, in which it has lived for 65 million years, are no longer viable for anything.

First image Brian Gratwicke

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