The hellbender is a large salamander living in the eastern United States. They are one of the only three species of giant salamanders in the world, and the only species in North America. Another species of giant salamander is the Japanese giant salamander. Giant salamanders are characterized by their large size, their almost completely aquatic lifestyle, and their wrinkled skin. There are two subspecies of hellbenders. The eastern, hellbender inhabits the largest area. The ozark hellbender lives only in a small place on the border of Missouri and Arkansas. This species can be green, brown, or gray depending on the individual. These salamanders go by many names including snot otter, devil dog, mud devil, grampus, Allegheny alligator, and old lasagna sides. This last name presumably comes from this amphibian’s wavy sides, resembling lasagna.
Male hellbenders are slightly smaller than females. Adults on average tend to be between 11 and 20 inches (28 and 51 cm). Some individuals grow up to 29 inches (74 cm), which is about the longest hellbender ever recorded. They can weigh from three to four pounds (1.3-1.8 kg). These salamanders are the third largest in the world, after only the other two giant salamanders: the Japanese giant salamander and the Chinese giant salamander.
Hellbenders are carnivores, but besides this restriction, hellbenders will eat almost anything they can get their hands …er… jaws on. In the wild, they generally eat frogs, fish, other salamanders, and a variety of invertebrates, including crayfish. Although these animals are too large to be kept as pets for most people, they are not uncommon in zoos. In captivity, they are fed crayfish, earthworms, and small fish.
Habitat and range
Hellbenders live in part of the United States east of the Mississippi River. The farthest South they go is about halfway down Alabama and Georgia. They go up north right to the Border of New York and Canada. Maybe they don’t enter Canada because they don’t have their passports. Who knows. Hellbenders live in rivers and streams with a lot of underwater debris. This makes it easier for them to hide from prey. They have been observed in streams as small as 16 feet (5 m) across, or rivers up to 330 feet (100 m) across.
Status and threats
The hellbender is classified as Near Threatened by the IUCN Red List. As with almost all animals, habitat destruction and degradation are the primary threats. Logging, mining, and construction all make the hellbenders’ habitat less livable. Fishermen also hunt these animals due to mis-beliefs that the are poisonous or that they eat fish and their eggs. Because of these threats, the population of this amazing salamander is in decline. The IUCN Red List’s assessment was way back in 2004, and some places say that the hellbender is now considered endangered. The St. Louis zoo has a captive breeding program to help protect these animals. Adults have no known natural predators, due to their large size. Juveniles are thought to be preyed on by aquatic snakes, snapping turtles, and large fish.
Mating occurs in late summer and early fall, which means it is probably happening right about now. Males excavate small nests sheltered by rocks, logs, and other debris. He then guides pregnant females into the burrow, and fertilizes the eggs as they come out. One male may mate with several females. Each female can lay from 150 to 450 light yellow eggs, each measuring about 1/4 inch (.6 cm) in diameter. Once they come in contact with water, the eggs triple in size! The males guard up to 2,000 eggs from different females. The eggs incubate for 68 to 84 days. Hatchlings are about 1.5 inches (3.8 cm) in length and look like miniatures of the adults except for their gills (adults breath through lungs and through their skin). Hellbenders can live up to 30 years in the wild.
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- Smithsonian Handbooks Reptiles and Amphibians. Mark O’Shea and Tim Halliday, Smithsonian Institution, ISBN: 978-0-7566-6009-3
- Animals of the world. Tom Jackson, ISBN: 978-1780191089
- Animal: The Definitive Visual Guide. David Burnie and Don E. Wilson, Smithsonian Institution, ISBN: 978-0-7566-6002-4
- Hellbender – Brian Gratwicke
- Hellbender range – Nrg800
- Mystery animal – Public domain