In the streams of North America there lurks a slimy creature that emerges in the night and feeds on crayfish and frogs. They have stubby legs and beady eyes and are by far the largest of their kind in North America. Despite their name, these creatures are not some demon summoned up from the depths of hell but are, in fact, giant salamanders. Cryptobranchus alleganiensis to be precise.

What's a hellbender?
Ranging in size from 12-29 inches when full grown, these creatures have adapted well to their environment. Their skin tone can be anything from a muddy brown/grey to black which makes it easy for them to hide from both predators and prey at the bottom of the river bed. They have long tails which act as rudders allowing them to hunt while flowing with the current and a flattened wide head which causes their body to be more streamline.

Although hellbenders are active throughout the year, with no period of hibernation, they are more prevalent during nocturnal hours. In the day they tend to hide in dens they've burrowed out under rocks and logs at the bottom of the river or stream. Viewing a hellbender in the day is a rare occurance, one more likely to occur during overcast days or their mating season.

Hellbenders begin courtship in late summer, with the male excavating a large breeding chamber. Once the chamber is complete the female will either enter of her own will or the male will chase her into it. Egg laying usually occurs in September. Whether the male keeps the female captive during this period until she lays the eggs or she stays of her own will is not known, though presumtions can be made considering the male chases the female out of the nest once the eggs are lain.

The eggs are deposited in two long strings that end up a yellow softball sized mass of 150-400 eggs. The male fertilizes them externally with the male hovering on the back of the female, much like a frog might. The pair will sway slightly ensuring an even displacement of sperm to egg. After they are laid and fertilized the male drives the female out then protects the eggs until they hatch two and half months later, in November.

A hellbender larva is 1-1 1/4 inch in length and emerges from the egg with a yolk sac. It is believed that the larvae suffer from a high mortality rate, probably being eaten by fish, snakes, frogs and other inhabitants of the river. Very little is known about the growth stages of a hellbender as so few have been encountered in the field. What is known is that it takes 5-7 years for a hellbender to reach sexual maturity and they can live up to 30 years.

Where to locate a hellbender
Hellbenders can be found in portions of New York, Maryland, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and a subspecies known as the Ozark hellbender can be found in Missouri and neighboring Arkansas. In each of these places they can be found in swift running, well oxygenated, unpolluted streams and rivers. Such as the Susquehanna and Alleghany River drainages in New York.

In Maryland, Ohio, Illinois and Indiana the hellbender has been listed on the Endangered Species list. In places like New York it is a Special Concern. Because they are hard to locate there isn't very much documentation regarding population numbers. As a result it is hard to say for sure if their numbers are dwindling but it is believed that pollution, construction, and unintentional mistaking as a poisonous creature have indeed caused their numbers to drop.


Hell"bend`er (?), n. Zool.

A large North American aquatic salamander (Protonopsis horrida or Menopoma Alleghaniensis). It is very voracious and very tenacious of life. Also called alligator, and water dog.


© Webster 1913.

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